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California Officials Say Thomas Fire Is The Fifth Largest In State History


A wildfire that started in Southern California more than a week ago actually got worse over the weekend. California officials say the Thomas Fire is now the fifth-largest in the state's history. It has spread across 230,000 acres northwest of Los Angeles towards Santa Barbara. Stephanie O'Neill has been covering the fire for us, and she's with us now from Ojai, Calif. Hey, Stephanie.


MCEVERS: Just tell us what's happening with this fire. Where is it, and why has it grown so fast?

O'NEILL: Well, right now its western advance has moved into Santa Barbara County. And it's grown so fast because it's fueled by erratic winds, strong winds, low humidity and decades of tinder-dry chaparral growth. And, like, right now you can see flames in the mountains above the beach communities in Santa Barbara County. And firefighters are working really hard to keep it out of the ranches and more populated residential areas below - Carpinteria, Summerland and also the city of Santa Barbara and the town of Montecito.

Montecito is that small community of about 8,000 or so people. And it has some of the very exclusive properties, some of the most exclusive in the nation belonging to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres. And many of those properties are now under mandatory evacuation orders.

MCEVERS: What does it mean to say that this is the fifth-largest fire in California's history?

O'NEILL: It's the fifth-largest by acres burned. So right now it's consumed an area that's about the size of the city of San Diego, which is a sprawling city. So the largest California fire by geographical area burned was the devastating 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, and that burned just over 270,000 acres. But you know, as fast as this Thomas Fire has been burning, it could easily surpass that to become, you know, the largest in state history.

So far, though, it's not the most destructive or deadly. In those terms, the worst happened this past October in the collection of Northern California wine country fires that killed more than 40 people and caused a billion dollars in damage to that region. And then, you know, what's most remarkable about this fire is that so far, there's only one known death - a Ventura County resident who was reportedly fleeing the fire and crashed their car.

MCEVERS: California Governor Jerry Brown has called these fires the new normal and told people to expect more of them. I mean, put this in perspective, though. How unusual is this particular fire, the Thomas Fire?

O'NEILL: Well, it's unusual in that it had, you know, the perfect storm of erratic, you know, winds and dry brush and so forth. But this fire is not without historical precedent. Ventura County Fire Captain Fred Burris has been with the department here for 36 years. He's studied the local fires and says this one is really following a very similar pattern to one that burned in September of 1932. That one was known as the Matilija Fire, and it burned 220,000 acres.

BATTALION CHIEF FRED BURRIS: So I think fire history repeats itself. And it's important to know where those historic perimeters are and to be aware that the fire really doesn't care what decade it's in.

O'NEILL: And something quite notable is that fire 85 years ago destroyed only one structure. By contrast, this fire has burned nearly 800 structures so far. And that underscores how much we Californians have built into these more remote and quite beautiful fire-prone areas.

MCEVERS: Wow. Quickly, what's next in the effort to put out this fire?

O'NEILL: Well, the fire county - Santa Barbara County fire officials have been working on the complex tactical planning that's needed to keep this wildland fire from coming down to the beach cities. They're bulldozing, air support, hand crews, conventional fire engines. And they have these giant wildland fire trucks ready there to create a protective line above the residential areas. But you know, building a fire line sometimes just slows the fire, doesn't always stop it. And we've seen them jump over orange groves in this case to burn down to the freeway.

MCEVERS: Reporter Stephanie O'Neill in Ojai, Calif., thank you very much.

O'NEILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie O'Neill