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Thomas Fire continues to grow as robust, shifting winds bring new dangers

The massive Thomas Fire continued to grow Sunday morning even after an epic battle to protect homes along the Santa Barbara County coast Saturday proved successful despite intense winds.

The third-largest fire in California history was burning a massive swath from Santa Barbara to Ventura, was being fueled by intense Santa Ana winds. On Sunday morning, the San Fernando Valley was being hit by wind gusts topping 40 mph. The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for canyon and mountain areas.

As of Sunday morning, the fire was at 269,000 acres and 40% contained. CalFire said 18,000 structures were threatened.

Fire crews were expected to shift their focus from Santa Barbara to Ventura County, where the northern edge of the fire was moving east and red flag conditions are expected to remain in place until Sunday night, officials said. Winds could gust up to 55 mph.

In Ventura County, firefighters were concentrating their forces in the hills above Fillmore where the wildfire continues to burn. Their efforts were hampered by dry conditions combined with low humidity and strong winds.

Red flag conditions were forecast in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles County through Sunday evening as well as parts of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Firefighters had smothered portions of the Santa Barbara hills with hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant in an attempt to keep embers from igniting spot fires, officials said. Some hillsides were intentionally denuded above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, including in Romero and Toro canyons, to limit the potential damage.

Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Martin Johnson told reporters Saturday night that the aggressive prevention measures had paid off. Hundreds of homes were spared.

“Earlier this evening I was asked the question, how many structures did we lose today?” Johnson said. “That’s the wrong question to ask. The question to ask is, how many did we save today?”

Resident Darren Caesar stood off the shoulder of Highway 192 next to the Montecito Fire Station and pointed to a row of fire trucks and tankers parked about 50 yards away. Caesar, his wife, and two of his three daughters were planning to evacuate, he said.

“Look at how many firefighting assets they have. I know what they’re doing. I trust that they can do everything they can to protect the structures,” he said. “But it’s the wind. Nobody can fight the wind.”

As the winds died down in Santa Barbara on Sunday, fire officials said they were going to take advantage of the moment by extinguishing smoldering hotspots in the Montecito area.

“We have a couple of days with no winds up there so we are going to go there an button it up,” said Bill Murphy, a spokesman for CalFire.


UPDATES:

9:00 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials.

This article was originally posted at 8:20 a.m.

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