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Firefighters In California Take Advantage Of Milder Winds

Updated at 10:30 p.m. ET

In a tug-of-war with a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, authorities said the ground they lost to the fire a day ago had been regained.

Firefighters on the ground, as well as water-dumping fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, had managed to bring the week-old, nearly 236,000-acre Thomas Fire, to 25 percent containment, after retreating from the massive blaze on Sunday.

As of Tuesday evening, the fire has destroyed 701 homes, damaged 163 others and still threatens 18,000 structures, according to CalFire. It has also forced the evacuation of thousands of residents.

A total of 7851 firefighters are battling the blaze that has caused an estimated $55.6 million in damages.

Four other conflagrations, the Creek, Rye, Lilac and Skirball fires are all at least 85 percent contained. Investigators in Los Angeles traced the Skirball fire, which destroyed six homes and damaged a dozen others in the affluent Bel-Air neighborhood, to a cooking fire at a nearby homeless encampment.

Efforts to fight the Thomas fire, which has engulfed parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, have been aided by milder wind conditions, member station KCLU reports.

KCLU says: "Firefighters say their efforts to keep the blaze from moving west out of the Carpinteria area to Montecito are going well."

The Associated Press reports:

"Ash fell like snow and heavy smoke had residents gasping for air Monday as the fire drove celebrities from the area.

... Officials handed out masks to those who stayed behind in Montecito, an exclusive community about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles that's home to stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Drew Barrymore."

The AP notes: "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."

And as much as the wind and dry brush contribute to the fire's ferocity, officials say the region's steep canyons of chaparral, especially in the Los Padres National Forest above Santa Barbara, make firefighting almost impossible, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"The mountain ranges run east-west — in line with dry winds from the interior. Deep canyons crease country that is twisted and folded by nature's forces. There are few places where fire crews can take a stand.

"'It's really steep,' said Tim Chavez, a battalion chief and fire behavior analyst with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 'The ridges don't go anywhere. There's no place where you can put a dozer on it and connect it to anything.'"

Such terrain gives firefighters no opportunity to attack the Thomas fire from the west.

The Thomas Fire is now the fifth largest in California's modern history and follows the deadliest-ever wildfires in the state mere weeks before, which killed 44 people and destroyed more than 10,000 homes and other structures.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.