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Strong winds fueled the massive and erratic Thomas Fire as it continued to flare up, moving west into Santa Barbara County and triggering new evacuations in Carpineteria and Montecito on Sunday afternoon.
By late Sunday afternoon, the fire had burned 200,00 acres and was 15 percent contained — but authorities expect that number to rise.
During a town hall meeting at San Marcos High School, fire behavior analyst Brendan Ripley said he expects the Thomas Fire to grow to at least 220,000 acres and surpass the Matilija Fire of 1932. That fire, the fifth largest in California's history, burned 343 square miles in Ventura County.
At the Sunday afternoon press conference, one fire incident commander cited erratic winds and rough terrain as the main problems for crews. "Those challenges are tremendously difficult to overcome on a good day and we haven't had a good day yet," he said. "The fire just outpaced us today."
Sheriff Bill Brown said, "This is going to be a multi-day event. This is not going to end tonight or tomorrow."
Fire behavior expert Ripley estimates that crews will be lucky if they can get a handle on the fire by this Thursday.
The Thomas Fire has destroyed 754 structures and damaged another 162. It has also left more than 85,000 customers without power. The blaze began near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula on Monday evening, the first day of these Santa Ana winds.
The devastation came with relief for some students.
On Sunday afternoon, UC Santa Barbara officials announced they would cancel finals week and postpone it until January 8, according to the Daily Nexus. Students were informed in an email from chancellor Henry T. Yang.
In the email, Yang said the the campus, including residence halls and apartments, would remain open as scheduled. He also encouraged all students who want to leave campus to do so:
"Though there is no need to evacuate campus, again, we are recommending that students make arrangements to leave."
The revised final exam schedule will be posted online on Tuesday, December 12. Some faculty had already made alternate arrangements for their exams, and those arrangements will remain in effect. The winter quarter will now begin on Tuesday, January 16 and will be shortened by one week.
As unpredictable winds pushed the flames closer to Carpinteria and Montecito, crews worked to protect homes — but they couldn't save them all.
The Santa Barbara Fire Department posted dramatic images of a home burning off Gobernador Canyon Road in Carpinteria. They also posted video of firefighters trying to knock down flames as they advanced toward a home on Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria.
Carpinteria city manager Dave Durflinger told KPCC via email, "Early this morning the fire came through the foothills of Carpinteria, which continue to burn. Winds are light, which has been helpful. The fire front is moving west. Power is intermittent."
Durflinger said it's still too early to know about losses. The city of Carpinteria is supporting fire and emergency operations by closing streets, disseminating evacuation information and distributing masks.
More than 4,000 firefighters are working to extinguish the Thomas Fire. The estimated cost of the fire is currently $25 million.
Forecasters predict the Santa Ana winds raking Southern California this past week will die down later Sunday.
Sunday afternoon, Ventura County officials lifted evacuations for the unincorporated areas of Santa Paula while Santa Barbara County officials expanded evacuations.
The mandatory evacuation area has been expanded to the area between Hot Springs Road and Buena Vista Drive. Evacuation warnings have been issued Mission Canyon Road to Cold Springs Road, above Alameda Padre Serra and from Alameda Padre Serra to Hot Springs Road between S. Salinas Road and Highway 192.
The new mandatory evacuation zone includes Westmont College, a small Christian liberal arts college in Montecito.
Earlier Sunday, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office issued a mandatory evacuation order for the area north of Highway 192 to E.Camino Cielo between Toro Canyon Road and Linden Ave. They issued an evacuation warning for the area south of Highway 192 to the 101 from Toro Canyon Road to Linden Avenue; south of the 101 to the Pacific Ocean from Padaro Lane to Linden Ave.; of Highway 192 to East Camino Cielo between Toro Canyon Road and Ladera Lane.
Before that, mandatory orders had been expanded in Montecito, covering the area from Buena Vista Drive to Toro Canyon Road and from Highway 192 north to Camino Cielo.
In Carpinteria, mandatory evacuation orders were also issued for the areas of Shepherd Mesa, Gobernador Canyon and Rincon Point.
An evacuation shelter has been established at the UCSB Recreation Center at 516 Ocean Road. For animal evacuations, residents in Santa Barbara County should call 805-681-4332.