SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (CBSLA/AP) — Entering its 13th day, the massive Thomas Fire ballooned into the third-largest in California history, as residents piled into cars and fled on Saturday as surging winds drove the blaze toward the wealthy Santa Barbara County coastal enclave of Montecito.
The Thomas Fire, which started Dec. 4 at highways 150 and 126 in Santa Paula, has now burned 267,500 acres and is still growing. That exceeds the devastating Rim Fire in 2013 by 2,000 acres. It is 40 percent contained.
While the blaze was still primarily burning in the Los Padres National Forest, new mandatory evacuation orders were issued Saturday morning around Montecito and neighboring Summerland as winds that had eased a day earlier raged back. Montecito was seeing 65 mile per hour winds Saturday, as it sat under a cloud of ash, soot and smoke. Firefighters were stationed at each home, according to officials. No homes in the Montecito hills had burned as of early Saturday afternoon.
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A portion of Santa Barbara city was also under mandatory evacuation. The new orders applied to areas south of the 192 Freeway.
The northbound 101 Freeway was shut down for several hours at Seacliff, just north of Ventura, to accomodate evacuees. It reopened Saturday afternoon. The Pacific Coast Highway was also a parking lot with residents fleeing the area.
The Santa Barbara Zoo, which is near the mandatory evacuation zone, announced it was putting some animals in crates to prepare for possible evacuation. The zoo has about 150 species of animals, including a pair of Amur leopards, a critically endangered species.
In downtown Santa Barbara, Maya Schoop-Rutten, owner of Chocolate Maya, said she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear after strong winds blew through.
“It was absolutely incredible,” she said. “There was a huge mushroom of smoke that happened in just a matter of a few minutes.”
Restaurants and small stores on normally bustling State Street were shuttered, as they have been on and off for more than 10 days as the varying winds pushed the flames and smoke back and forth.
“It’s a ghost town. Everything is shut down,” Schoop-Rutten said. “It’s very, very eerie.”
The northerly “sundowner” wind was driving the fire south and west.
“When the sundowners surface in that area and the fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it,” Mark Brown with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said at a news conference. “And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations.”
The northeastern Ventura County community of Fillmore was also still under threat from the eastern flank of the blaze, where a CAL Fire engineer was killed Thursday near the agricultural town of Fillmore. An autopsy performed Friday determined 32-year-old Cory Iverson of San Diego died of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries, according to the Ventura County medical examiner.
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“When that happened, this fire hit a whole new level because all the firefighters know that could have been them,” Concialdi said. “When you lose a fellow brother, that hits all of us and our families extremely hard.”
“Areas of concern are above the coastal Santa Barbara County communities, Matilija Wilderness, Rose Valley, and Sespe river drainage north of Fillmore,” the U.S. Forest Service wrote Saturday morning.
The Thomas Fire has destroyed at least 1,009 structures and damaged 240 more. 18,000 structures remain threatened. The region has had “red flag” — or hot, dry and windy — conditions for an unprecedented 13 consecutive days.
Santa Barbara County is under a Red Flag Warning until at least 10 p.m. Saturday, while most of Los Angeles and Ventura counties will enter a Red Flag Warning at 1 a.m. Sunday. That warning will stay through Sunday evening. Winds were gusting up to 40 mph in the Santa Barbara County mountains where the fire is burning.
Firefighting costs were now at more than $103 million, the Ventura County Fire Department disclosed Saturday.
The fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.
“It is right above the homes,” fire spokesperson Jude Olivas said.
Winfrey expressed her dismay at the latest development on her Twitter account.
“Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters,” Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.
Since the fire began on Dec. 4, about 95,000 people have been placed under mandatory evacuation. The evacuation zone is now 17 miles long and up to 5 miles wide. It extends from the mountains to the sea.
Concialdi said authorities are hoping to have the blaze contained by Jan. 7.
Santa Barbara has had only a tiny amount of rain since Oct. 1, the start of the new water year, and is more than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) below normal to date.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)