SANTA BARBARA (CBSLA/AP) — Firefighters battling the gigantic Thomas Fire still smoldering in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties successfully doused hot spots Thursday during another round of Santa Ana winds.
Thousands of residents from Montecito north to the Santa Barbara neighborhoods of Eucalyptus Hill, Riviera, Mission Canyon and Foothill could finally return to their homes, as all mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders in place for several days were lifted for Santa Barbara County at around 9 a.m. Thursday. The orders were lifted just as a Red Flag Warning for southern Santa Barbara County expired.
However, Red Flag warnings for most of Los Angeles and Ventura counties were staying in affect through 10 a.m. Friday.
Crews were in place to once again to provide structure protection above Montecito and other hillside communities in Santa Barbara County, where the last round of heavy gusts revived the flames and forced new evacuations last weekend.
“If there’s an ember that’s been there for a day or two that’s still glowing, that can be a real risk if the winds start blowing,” said fire information officer Brandon Vaccaro.
The fire area hasn’t received more than a tenth-of-an-inch of rainfall since February, CAL Fire said, with no rain forecast for the “foreseeable future.”
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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 Thursday morning it was holding steady at 272,200 acres, with containment still at 60 percent. Full containment isn’t expected until Jan. 7.
The fire has destroyed at least 1,063 structures – including 755 homes — and damaged 280 more. Some 18,000 homes and other buildings remained threatened. More than 100,000 were forced to evacuate at some point. The blaze is now the second-largest in California history. It is about 1,000 acres smaller than the state’s largest fire ever measured. That blaze, the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego, killed 15 people.
Firefighting costs have now hit $167 million and counting. The number of personnel assigned to the fire were reduced from about 8,400 to 5,600 Thursday.
Meanwhile, in Ventura County firefighters attacked a stubborn section of the blaze from the air because terrain near the agricultural city of Fillmore was too rugged to get ground crews in.
Firefighters used three days of calm conditions to bulldoze containment lines and set controlled fires to clear dry brush.
The north part of the fire was moving through the Sespe Wilderness and Bear Haven area of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County, CAL Fire said.
Some residents watched from afar at hotels and evacuation centers, while others are waiting in their homes and hoping for the best. Katy and Bob Zappala have stayed in their home in Santa Barbara despite an evacuation order that was in place since Saturday.
“Our cars are packed, we have all our clothes and jewelry, so we’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice should we have to,” Katy Zappala, 74, said Wednesday.
The Zappalas and their cat, Madeline, haven’t left home since the evacuation order was issued because authorities wouldn’t allow them back in. They’re starting to run out of food and are hoping that if they make it through the next wave of winds, the ordeal will be over.
“You’re always nervous when the winds come up,” Zappala said.
Days and days of such fierce, often erratic gusts combined with extremely dry weather have pushed the blaze with virtually unprecedented speed, blackening more ground in weeks than other fires consumed in a month or more.
It would take an hour to drive from one end of the fire to the other by freeway, said Capt. David Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
“It’s burned through downtown Ventura, it burned through the foothills of Montecito … and it’s also burning in the back wilderness up in the mountains,” he said. “It’s done a little bit of everything. It’s massive.”
The fire is responsible for two deaths. San Diego CAL Fire engineer 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.)