New evacuations as massive California wildfire spreads

MONTECITO, Calif. -- Surging Santa Ana winds on Saturday drove an enormous wildfire toward a wealthy community in the coastal mountains northwest of Los Angeles, leaving fire crews working in a pall of smoke. The 404-square-mile Thomas Fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of the unincorporated Santa Barbara County community of Montecito. 

Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.

"It is right above the homes," fire spokesman Jude Olivas said. 

Entering its 13th day, the Thomas Fire ballooned into the third-largest in California history. Steve Concialdi of the Orange County Fire Authority said the Thomas Fire, which started Dec. 4, has now burned 259,000 acres and is still growing. That exceeds the devastating Rim Fire in 2013 by 2,000 acres.

Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.

"Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters," Winfrey tweeted on Saturday. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito. 

Winds were gusting to 25 mph and at some point, mandatory evacuations were expected for an area occupied by dozens of homes.

For the 13th straight day, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning of extreme fire danger because of hot, dry, windy conditions.

Smoke from the fire lingered at ground level, making it hard for firefighters to see, and the poor visibility kept a fleet of water-dropping helicopters from taking off, Olivas said.

The fire already was moving north, south and west through heavy brush and forestlands in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Some 95,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders. 

Massive Thomas Fire Threatens Santa Barbara County
The glow of approaching flames is seen at the gates of an expensive home as the Thomas Fire continues to grow on December 12, 2017 in Montecito, California. David McNew/Getty Images

No one picked up the phone Saturday at La Casa De Maria, a center for spiritual renewal "nestled between mountain and sea" in Santa Barbara. A recording said it was closed until further notice due to mandatory fire evacuation, ending with the words: "Be safe." 

The Santa Ana winds had eased Friday, giving firefighters some breathing space after more than a week of tough, incessant work. Crews stripped or burned brush in areas near homes in an effort to starve the blaze.

Saturday's rising winds, however, brought concern that the flames would be pushed along so fast, far and fiercely that fire crews couldn't touch them.

"The fear is that the fire is uncontrollable in a very windy episode," Olivas said. 

Those conditions would be so dangerous that firefighters couldn't battle the fire from the front but would have to "hunker" in safety zones until the flames pass, then move in and fight it, Olivas said.

The fire has burned more than 700 homes, threatens at least 18,000 homes and other buildings, and is blamed for the deaths of a firefighter and a 70-year-old woman who crashed her car on an evacuation route.

Jim Welsh did last-minute work on his home in Santa Barbara. He spent the past week clearing out his gutter in case the Thomas Fire moved in his direction. He had this ladder on standby, CBS Los Angeles reported.

"Just in case I have to get on the roof for some reason," Welch said.

Over the past week, fire crews have been driving up and down area streets to get familiar with them. A number of engines are parked on standby in case anything flares up, according to CBS Los Angeles. Crews don't want to see a repeat of the Tea Fire that destroyed more than 200 homes in the Montecito and Santa Barbara more than nine years ago.

Everything about the Thomas Fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighborhoods to the legions attacking it.

The cause remains under investigation. At last count, firefighting costs were approaching $89 million.