Recovery

Firefighters Optimistic on Thomas Fire as Winds Start to Die Down

The Thomas Fire, which began burning through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties on Dec. 4, has grown to 270,000 acres — the third-largest fire in the state’s modern history — with containment up to 45 percent.

by Sarah Ravani, San Francisco Chronicle / December 18, 2017

(TNS) - For Kris Parker, the decision to shut down his Santa Barbara brewery on Saturday didn’t come easy.

But when he looked outside and saw the sky dark with smoke and the flames blowing toward the city, he knew he had no choice.

By Sunday morning, the smoke had cleared, and with only a voluntary evacuation in place for Third Window Brewing, Parker reopened the brewery’s doors.

Firefighters went face-to-face with the huge Southern California blaze, pushed by strong wind gusts, attacking it with hoses as weather conditions tempered.

The Thomas Fire, which began burning through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties on Dec. 4, has grown to 270,000 acres — the third-largest fire in the state’s modern history — with containment up to 45 percent.

The containment numbers were expected to increase as crews continued to confront the fire head on, with full containment anticipated by Jan. 7, said Capt. Rick Crawford of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“It doesn’t look as harrowing,” Parker said, the CEO of the brewery. “Everyone is struggling. At the moment, we are trying to figure out ... how to keep our employees paid and make our rent.”

The brewery’s revenue was down 40 percent compared with last December, Parker said. Joining him Sunday was one other staff member who helped open the brewery.

Ten homes were lost in Montecito overnight, Crawford said, adding that damage could have been much worse.

Parker evacuated his own Montecito home a week ago and doesn’t know if his home is still standing. There are still about 18,000 structures threatened by the wildfire.

Wind gusts dropped to about 20 mph on Sunday, making it slightly easier for the more than 8,500 firefighters. Thirty-four helicopters were assigned to the blaze Sunday, as well as 972 fire engines, said Capt. Stan Ziegler of the Ventura County Fire Department.

“The weather patterns are going to be a little more favorable for us to take advantage of certain geographical points where we might be able to hold the fire. ... We can dig in and become a little more aggressive,” Ziegler said.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place for most of Montecito and the town of Summerland, and upper areas of Santa Barbara, affecting 16,000-17,000 people.

Fred Huther, 58, of Santa Barbara said a city official knocked on his door on Saturday night and told him and his 17-year-old son, Jon, that it was time to leave.

“I could see the flames peeking over the hill just above where our house was. It was pretty crazy,” Huther said.

Huther had packed his car with jewelry, artwork, clothing and other essential items just in case.

“It’s just kind of frustrating. We’ve only lived in Santa Barbara for three years — we are not accustomed to the fire thing,” Huther said, who moved from the Washington, D.C., area. “We are probably a little more cautious than other people, but when that happened (Saturday), everyone was like, ‘OK, this is real.’”

Unlike Huther, Ian Anzlowar, 26, remembers when he was evacuated during the 2008 Tea Fire, which destroyed about 200 homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara. But this time, he said, the fire was “the closest it’s ever been to us.”

The Santa Barbara resident said he was escorted out of his home by the National Guard on Saturday because the flames were only three blocks away.

“You could feel the heat from the fire from my house,” Anzlowar said.

Anzlowar hasn’t been able to return home since evacuating, but said he’s heard that his house hasn’t burned down yet.

Nonetheless, Anzlowar, a manager at Renaud’s Patisserie and Bistro, arrived to work on Sunday to cover for the many employees who evacuated due to the poor air quality.

“There is almost nobody in town. It’s strange,” Anzlowar said. “This is the first day I’ve seen blue skies in town in about two weeks, but you can definitely see a haze over everything.”

On Saturday, the Santa Barbara Zoo crated most of its birds and other small animals, bringing them indoors to protect them from the ash and smoke. Larger animals were taken to their indoor living quarters while the condors and griffon vultures were transferred to the Los Angeles Zoo, said Rich Block, the CEO.

To date, the cost of battling the fire is nearly $117 million. At least 1,026 structures have been destroyed and 242 damaged in the Thomas Fire.

The body of firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, was returned from Ventura to his hometown of San Diego on Sunday in an hours-long highway procession of fire engines, motorcycle cops and other emergency vehicles.

Iverson was killed Thursday. He had worked for Cal Fire since 2009 and was assigned to a fire engine strike team from San Diego.

He was the second person to die in the blaze. Virginia Pesola, a 70-year-old from Santa Paula, died in her car along an evacuation route. The medical examiner said the cause of death was blunt force injuries, along with smoke inhalation and heat injuries.

“I went down to L.A. on Thursday ... and it was beautiful with perfect blue skies,” Huther said. “I came back (to Santa Barbara) at the end of the day, and it was almost dark there was so much smoke, and the sun was glowing red. It’s odd to have to go to L.A. for clean air.”

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani

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