Thomas Fire Burns An Area Larger Than Metro New York City

Dec 12, 2017
Originally published on December 12, 2017 8:28 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. To California now. Tired fire crews are battling the massive wildfire in Southern California. They're struggling to protect communities along the state's scenic coastline near Santa Barbara. Authorities are warning of the potential of a significant fire growth as the Thomas fire continues to expand. It has already burned an area larger than metro New York City, and the economically diverse area that it is threatening means everybody from movie stars to everybody else are having to flee their homes. NPR's Eric Westervelt has the latest from Carpentaria in Ventura County.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Throughout the day, firefighter helicopters attacked the western flank of the Thomas fire, trying to keep the flames away from homes and plant nurseries on the edge of this coastal city. But deeper into the hills above the city, well-to-do homes with big gardens and long driveways are under threat. And there, the thick smoke and steep, inaccessible terrain underscore the challenge for ground crews fighting this week-old blaze. From a smoke-shrouded ridgetop, fire Captain Steve Concialdi surveyed the view as fingers of fire moved up a nearby hillside dotted with multi-acre properties.

STEVE CONCIALDI: I don't see any hose lines down here, and you can't even get a fire engine in. So, you know - look how steep that is. They're going to eventually have to use the helicopters to make drops and to get all the hotspots.

WESTERVELT: Fire crews are optimistic that with a break in the winds today they can make more progress in coming days on the stubborn fire that has forced tens of thousands to evacuate, destroyed nearly a thousand structures and closed schools and businesses. But right now, as copters buzz overhead, crews continue to try to keep the fire away from homes and farms.

SCOTT CIMAROFF: And that is our primary goal is structure protection and defense.

WESTERVELT: Firefighter Scott Cimaroff (ph) with the quick reaction strike team from Linda, Calif. His team's deployed across a sprawling nursery, the kind of working farm that supplies the landscaping for the upscale, secluded properties tucked into the hills above. Chickens wander across an ash-covered rose garden while spotters with binoculars sit on the farm home's roof calling in priorities to ground crews battling the encroaching flames. Over the last week, Cimaroff and his team have followed the fire's fronts from Ventura to Ojai and now Carpentaria, a fire that has now left mile after mile of charred hillside and forest.

CIMAROFF: It has covered a lot of acreage and a lot of territory, and unfortunately, this area hasn't had any measurable rain fall in a long time. And with drought conditions, Santa Ana winds, everything lines up just perfect, and all it takes is a little spark and we get up to this.

WESTERVELT: Nearby crews cut a fire line with chainsaws and shovels. Captain Steve Concialdi says crews are fatigued and bracing to be here for many more days, possibly into the holidays.

CONCIALDI: And it - basically, it's going to be Christmas before you know it - going to be long. It's 230,000 acres. We're going to be here for a while and basically put this fire out - put it out.

WESTERVELT: Residents are eager for that. Most walk and drive around wearing white masks to protect a little against the smoke and snow-like gray-and-white ash that now covers just about everything here. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Carpentaria, Calif.

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