MONTECITO (CBSLA/AP) — After a welcome lull in powerful winds that drove the massive Thomas Fire, crews braced for the return of potentially dangerous gusts that could revive the flames Wednesday.
Firefighters used two days of calm conditions to build containment lines and set controlled fires to clear dry brush ahead of so-called sundowner winds that whipped up Wednesday evening.
“We’re expecting somewhere around 20 to 25 mile per hours winds…that’s why we’re in place monitoring that in case it does spark up we’re there and ready to deal with it,” Jake Cagle, of Santa Barbara County Fire, Said.
Also on Wednesday, a group of homeowners filed a lawsuit against utility companies and the City of Ventura. They claim SoCal Edison construction workers started the fire and non-working fire hydrants made it harder to fight it.
Homeowners are also concerned about Looters. Police say a 32-year-old man from Lompoc was arrested Tuesday night for burglary when the property manager watch on security video.
Red Flag warnings are in affect from 6 p.m. Wednesday to 10 a.m. Thursday for southern Santa Barbara County.
“We are still on guard,” fire information officer Rudy Evenson said. “It’s been a very unpredictable fire and we just don’t know what these winds are going to do.”
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The Thomas Fire, which broke out Dec. 4 in Santa Paula, is now the second-largest in California history. As of Wednesday morning it was holding at 272,000 acres and 60 percent containment. Officials said the new winds could cause it to grow into the state’s biggest fire ever.
The fire has destroyed at least 1,024 structures – including 755 homes — and damaged 250 more.
More evacuations were lifted Tuesday, but communities remain threatened in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Firefighters will be keeping a strong presence in the coastal hillside community of Montecito, which was threatened over the weekend, and could come under siege again if the winds whip up Wednesday.
“This afternoon, the forecasted strong north wind event will bring wind conditions similar to those experienced when the fire made its push into Montecito,” CAL Fire wrote in its Wednesday morning fire update. “With the introduction of these winds, critically dry fuels will be highly receptive to fire spread. Montecito will continue to be an area of concern, where north winds are funneled through the Santa Ynez Range.”
Meanwhile, those who fled the flames feared they might not have homes to go back to.
“My husband has the feeling, ‘Why aren’t they letting us back in?'” said 82-year-old Curry Sawyer, whose Christmas tree is up still waiting for their grandkids to decorate it after she and her husband Ray had to evacuate from their home in Santa Barbara two weeks ago. “But they’ve got hot spots up there and if we get more Santa Ana winds, we’re going to be back to square one. I’m not sure we’re out of the woods.”
Even if their beloved home of five decades survives the next onslaught of winds, the Sawyers are preparing for Christmas in yet another hotel.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Sawyer said from her hotel in Goleta on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, 432 people were still staying at evacuation shelters run by the Red Cross, agency spokeswoman Georgia Duncan said.
The shelters at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Ventura County Fairgrounds are preparing to stay open for Christmas and many agencies are donating toys so that the children there have presents to open.
One company already donated more than 100 bicycles, mostly for children. And Christmas came early for one 5-year-old boy who was handed a Mickey Mouse doll.
“He just grabbed it and cried because he had lost all of his toys and just thought there would be no Christmas,” Duncan said. “To him, yesterday was Christmas.”
Marolyn Romero-Sim, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter have been at an evacuation shelter in Ventura for two weeks after they watched their home of four years, an RV, burn in the wildfire, along with their beloved dog, their Christmas tree and a few presents.
The family is trying to save money for another RV but know they’ll probably be in the shelter for Christmas.
“I try not to let my daughter know, but I feel horrible,” the 34-year-old Romero-Sim said through tears Tuesday. “She’s being so understanding. She’s just thankful we’re going to be together for Christmas.”
Officials estimate that the Thomas Fire will grow to become the biggest in California history before full containment, which is expected by Jan. 7.
The fire is about 1,200 acres smaller than the state’s largest fire ever measured. That blaze, the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego, killed 15 people.
The Thomas Fire is responsible for two deaths. Firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, died Dec. 14 of burns and smoke inhalation while battling the flames. The blaze is also blamed for the Dec. 6 death of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car crash on an evacuation route.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)