California Blaze Rages Threatening Coastal Towns
Firefighters kept a wall of flames from descending mountains into coastal neighborhoods after a huge and destructive Southern California wildfire exploded in size, becoming the 5th largest in state history.
Tens of thousands remained under evacuation orders Monday as the fire churned west through foothill areas of Carpinteria and Montecito, seaside Santa Barbara County towns about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Much of the fire’s rapid new growth occurred on the eastern and northern fronts into unoccupied areas of Los Padres National Forest, where the state’s 4th largest fire burned a decade ago.
The blaze, which had already destroyed more than 750 buildings, gutted 6 more in Carpinteria on Sunday, officials said. It’s just 15% contained after charring nearly 360 sqm of dry brush and timber.
Forecasters predicted that dry winds that fanned several fires across the region for a week would begin to lose their power Monday. Light gusts were pushing onshore, driving the flames back up hillsides and away from communities, Santa Barbara County Fire spokesman said. But the possibility of “unpredictable” gusts would keep firefighters on edge for days, he said.
Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region’s most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.
With the air thick with acrid smoke, even residents of areas not under evacuation orders took the opportunity to leave, fearing another shutdown of US 101, a Key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week. Officials handed out masks to residents who stayed behind in Montecito, the wealthy hillside enclave that’s home to celebrities.
Meanwhile, containment increased on other major blazes in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties. Resources from those fires were diverted to the Santa Barbara foothills to combat the stubborn and enormous fire that started on 4 December.
Fires are not typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Though the state emerged this Spring from a years long drought, hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region over the past 6 months.
“This is the new normal,” Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown warned Saturday after surveying damage from the deadly Ventura fire. Gov. Brown and experts said climate change is making wildfires a year-round threat.
High fire risk is expected to last into January.
The small mountain town of Ojai experienced hazardous levels of smoke at times, and officials warned of unhealthy air for large swaths of the region. The South Coast Air Quality Management District urged residents to stay indoors if possible and avoid vigorous outdoor activities.