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Calmer Winds Allow Crews To Get Strategic While Feverishly Protecting Montecito Mansions

SANTA BARBARA (CBSLA/AP) — Firefighters protected foothill homes while the fire grew mostly into forest land Tuesday, Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason said.

The Thomas Fire, the fifth largest blaze in state history, was threatening thousands of homes as it churned through coastal mountains in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties amid persistently dangerous weather conditions.

The fire broke out on the evening of Dec. 4. As of Tuesday morning it has burned 236,200 acres of dry brush and timber and was 25 percent contained. The Santa Ana winds were expected to continue to move the fire in a northwest direction in Santa Barbara County, threatening the coastal towns of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito. Although winds were calmer Tuesday which was good news for fire crews.

"The plan today is, again, our No. 1 concern is, to keep the fire out of Carpinteria, Montecito, Summerland and Santa Barbara, and we're doing that so far," Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi told CBS2 Tuesday.

Mandatory evacuations are in effect in the upscale area of Montecito. Affectionately known as the American Riviera, Montecito is about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles that's home to stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Drew Barrymore.

"Last night here was epic, the whole range here was on fire, and the sound of the fire was especially roaring," homeowner William Peitzke said. The fire got within 4,000 feet of his house.

In the neighboring town of Summerland it's been pretty much a ghost town.

"Since Sunday I haven't had any business," shop owner Linda Myer said.

Crews have been letting the fire naturally burn the brush away that's in the hills, they've been spreading retardant along the foothills and are standing by to jump on a home when in danger. No homes in the enclave have been lost as of late Tuesday.

"Well it feels good. What they're doing is creating a defensible zone around this area," Peitzke said.

With the lack of winds Tuesday, crews feel confidant allowing the fire to chew up all the old dry brush.

Thomas Fire: Latest Closures And Evacuations

With the unhealthy air quality, free N-95 respirator masks were being distributed Tuesday at several locations throughout Santa Barbara.

The blaze has destroyed at least 794 structures and damaged 187 more. It is threatening 18,000 homes.

Red Flag warnings for fire danger due to Santa Ana winds and a critical lack of moisture were extended into the week instead of expiring Monday afternoon as was initially forecast.

"It doesn't get much drier than this folks," the National Weather Service Service tweeted, adding that more than 80 observation sites in the region reported afternoon relative humidity levels between just 1 and 9 percent.

On Monday, ash fell like snow and heavy smoke had residents gasping for air in foothill towns near Santa Barbara, the latest flare-up after a week of wind-fanned wildfires throughout the region.

With acrid smoke thick in the air, even residents not under evacuation orders were leaving, fearing another shutdown of a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week.

Actor Rob Lowe wore a mask as he live-streamed his family evacuating Sunday from their smoke-shrouded home.

"Praying for the people in my area," he said to his Instagram followers. "Hope everybody's getting out safe like we are, and thanks for the prayers and thoughts. And good luck to the firefighters, we need you!"

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that neighbors were helping each other and their animals get to safety.

"I'm sending lots of love and gratitude to the fire department and sheriffs. Thank you all," she wrote.

Customers coming into Jeannine's American Bakery in Montecito brushed ash from their clothes and marveled at smoke so heavy that visibility was down to just a few feet.

"There's so much ash it's unbelievable," manager Richard Sanchez said. "Everything is white. The streets are covered, cars are covered, our parking lot is covered."

Dr. Helene Gardner, an expert in air quality at University of California, Santa Barbara, watched ash fall "like a fine snow" from her home after the school postponed final exams until January. She said her environmental sciences students got a kick from the fact that the delay was directly related to their field of study.

Gardner warned that the air alerts should be taken seriously because of airborne particulates — "nasty buggers" — that can lodge in lungs and cause respiratory problems.

She said the levels of particulates from a wildfire can approach those seen near coal-burning plants in pollution-heavy China and are especially problematic for people exerting themselves.

"When I look out my window and see someone bicycling I think, 'No, no, no, get off your bike and walk!'" she said.

Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

The National Weather Service said that if the long-term forecast holds, there will have been 13 consecutive days of dry offshore flow before it ends Friday afternoon. There have only been 17 longer streaks since 1948, including the record of 24 days set between December 1953 and January 1954.

High fire risk is expected to last into January.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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