Montecito's misery: Ash rains in California wildfire battle

Firefighters keeping watch on the Thomas wildfire in the hills and canyons outside Montecito, California, on Dec 16, 2017.
Firefighters keeping watch on the Thomas wildfire in the hills and canyons outside Montecito, California, on Dec 16, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

MONTECITO, UNITED STATES (AFP) - Ash rained down on Saturday (Dec 16) on the dry hills and multi-million-dollar homes of Montecito, where firefighters chased spot blazes fanned by winds in one of California's largest wildfires in decades.

The fire, named "Thomas", broke out almost two weeks ago and is now the state's third-largest wildfire since 1932.

On Saturday it led to evacuation orders for areas in Santa Barbara County, including Montecito more than 80km north-west of Los Angeles along the Pacific coast.

"Fire made an aggressive southward push into the community of Montecito, impacting some structures there," the state's fire service, Cal Fire, said on its website.

The hills of Montecito are normally a tranquil, lightly-populated refuge for celebrities and the wealthy.

Most had fled the semi-rural zone on Saturday as smoke hung over the district's palm trees, and ash sometimes fell.

With the district largely deserted, fire trucks moved without sirens and were stationed at every home in a bid to save them, an AFP photographer said.

Some firefighters marched in blue helmets, with hand tools over their shoulders and strapped to their backs, to attack hotspots that frequently ignite from embers blown by the winds.

Almost 8,500 firefighters assisted by 34 helicopters are attacking the Thomas fire, which sprawls for miles.

Santa Barbara's Office of Emergency Management announced a series of mandatory evacuation orders as well as voluntary evacuation warnings for parts of the county on its Twitter account.

The OEM said the county website shut down "due to extreme traffic." The fire, which is menacing Santa Barbara, has already burned 108,000 ha of land, destroyed more than 1,000 structures and cost more than US$110 million (S$148 million) since it broke out on Dec 4, said Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Two dead

There have been a series of fires in California this month, most of which have since been contained.

But this is the only one to have resulted in deaths.

San Diego-based Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson died fighting the fire in Ventura County, while a 70-year-old woman was killed in an accident as she fled in her car.

Although the blaze is 40 per cent contained, conditions including winds, dry fuel and low humidity "will continue to support fire growth", Cal Fire said, warning that conditions were ripe for new wildfires to emerge.

"Over the weekend, winds across northern California are expected to reach 48 to 64 kmph. Wildfires can strike anywhere at any time," it warned in a Facebook post.


Only two fires have burned more acreage in California so far this century: the Cedar Fire of 2003, and the Rush Fire of 2012, which scorched 273,246 and 271,911, respectively.

Cal Fire's list of the top 20 largest wildfires in the state dates back to 1932, as earlier records are less reliable, it says.

This year is the worst on record for wildfire devastation in California.

California Governor Jerry Brown has said that the wildfires ravaging his state should serve as a warning to parts of the world threatened by climate change.

"The important fact is that these fires are going to become a very frequent occurrence. That's what the science is telling us," Brown said.

"It's a real indicator of bad things to come, and hopefully will serve to wake up people who right now are too complacent."