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Thomas Fire containment hits 20 percent as acres burned hit 231,700

In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
Mike Eliason/AP
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
Christmas decorations illuminate a house as the growing Thomas Fire advances toward Santa Barbara County seaside communities on December 10, 2017 in Carpinteria, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
People watch as the Thomas Fire advances toward Santa Barbara County seaside communities on December 10, 2017 in Carpinteria, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
In this Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department firefighters knock down flames as they advance on homes atop Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
Mike Eliason/AP
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
A plume of smoke is seen from Ojai, California as the Thomas Fire grows and advances toward seaside communities on December 10, 2017 near Carpinteria, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
A house burns near Casitas Pass Road as the Thomas Fire continues to grow on December 10, 2017 near Carpinteria, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
Gas lines in the ruins of a house that was destroyed by fire burn as the Thomas Fire continues to grow on December 10, 2017 near Carpinteria, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
A firefighter hoses the burning ruins of a house near Casitas Pass Road as the Thomas Fire continues to grow on December 10, 2017 near Carpinteria, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
Burnt out cars lie in the yard of an orchard as the Thomas wildfire continues to burn in Carpinteria, California on December 10, 2017.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters working on structure protection, keep a close eye on nearby flames atop Shepard Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns.
Christmas decorations illuminate a house as the growing Thomas Fire advances toward Santa Barbara County seaside communities on December 10, 2017 in Carpinteria, California.
David McNew/Getty Images


Updated 6:38 p.m.

Evacuations | School closures | Road closures | Air quality

The Thomas Fire exploded in size over the weekend, but only grew a small amount Monday, with containment increasing from 15 to 20 percent while the fire ticked up to 231,700 acres burned. 

The fire has destroyed 869 buildings, according to the latest totals. There are 18,000 structures that remain under threat.

Officials say the Thomas Fire, which broke out a week ago in Ventura County, is now the fifth largest in California history. According to earlier estimates, the total cost of the fire to date is more than $38 million. 

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

With acrid smoke thick in the air, even residents not under evacuation orders took the chance to leave, fearing another shutdown of a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week.

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.

Actor Rob Lowe wore a mask as he live-streamed his family evacuating Sunday from their smoke-shrouded home.

"Praying for the people in my area," he said to his Instagram followers. "Hope everybody's getting out safe like we are, and thanks for the prayers and thoughts. And good luck to the firefighters, we need you!"

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that neighbors were helping each other and their animals get to safety.

"I'm sending lots of love and gratitude to the fire department and sheriffs. Thank you all," she wrote.

Customers coming into Jeannine's American Bakery in Montecito brushed ash from their clothes and marveled at smoke so heavy that visibility was down to just a few feet.

"There's so much ash it's unbelievable," manager Richard Sanchez said. "Everything is white. The streets are covered, cars are covered, our parking lot is covered."

Amtrak canceled service through the city of Santa Barbara, and its nearly 200-year-old mission church was closed because of smoke and ash. Authorities issued repeated alerts about unhealthy air and warned people to stay indoors, avoid vigorous outdoor activities and not do anything to stir up ash.

Dr. Helene Gardner, an expert in air quality at University of California, Santa Barbara, watched ash fall "like a fine snow" from her home after the school postponed final exams until January. She said her environmental sciences students got a kick from the fact that the delay was directly related to their field of study.

Gardner warned that the air alerts should be taken seriously because of airborne particulates — "nasty buggers" that can lodge in lungs and cause respiratory problems.

She said the levels of particulates from a wildfire can approach those seen near coal-burning plants in pollution-heavy China and are especially problematic for people exerting themselves.

"When I look out my window and see someone bicycling I think, 'No, no, no, get off your bike and walk!'" she said.

Forecasters predicted dry winds that spread fires throughout the region for a week would begin to lose their power Monday. Light gusts were driving the flames away from communities, Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason said. But the possibility of "unpredictable" gusts would keep firefighters on edge, he said.

"I'm not frightened yet," Carpinteria resident Roberta Lehtinen told KABC-TV. "I don't think it's going to come roaring down unless the winds kick up."

Crews aided by calm overnight winds kept a wall of flames from descending from mountains into coastal towns over the weekend. The area hasn't burned since 1932, according to Cal Fire officials.

After a full week of fighting the continually growing fire, Cal Fire's Charles Esseling told KPCC that some fire personnel are losing steam. 

"There are people who are being exhausted, but this is what everybody signed up for," Esseling said. "People are coming into base camp, they're smiling, they're doing their job and we're doing the best we can."

Thousands remain under evacuation orders Monday as the fire churns west through foothill areas of Carpinteria and Montecito, Santa Barbara County seaside towns about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Much of the fire's new growth occurred on the eastern and northern fronts into unoccupied areas of Los Padres National Forest.

A Red Flag Warning is in effect for most of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties through 8 p.m. Monday evening, according to the National Weather Service. Gusty winds and low humidity contribute to volatile fire conditions, so officials recommend using "extreme caution" when using potential fire ignition sources.

The fire is also causing power outages and surges for up to 85,000 people throughout the Santa Barbara area and 2,432 people in the Ventura area, according to Southern California Edison. The company's damage assessment teams are working to replace the damaged poles. 

Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

Firefighters gained more control over other major blazes in Southern California and diverted resources to the Santa Barbara foothills to combat the enormous fire that started Dec. 4.

Fires are not typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the winds. Though the state emerged this spring from a yearslong drought, hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region over the past six months.

High fire risk is expected to last into January.

President Donald Trump received a lunchtime briefing on the government's response to California's wildfires.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters says Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue also briefed Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on a wildfire prevention roundtable he participated in Monday.

Trump has declared a state of emergency in the state and ordered federal agencies to help with the efforts.

Walters says the White House "continues to closely monitor the situation" and is urging "anyone ordered to evacuate during a wildfire, do so immediately and listen to your local and state officials."

She also says the White House "extends its thoughts and prayers" to everyone affected by the fires that have been tearing through Southern California.

Evacuations

Mandatory Evacuations

Most of the evacuation orders have been lifted in Ventura County, but not all — especially in the neighborhoods hit hardest by the fire. More city of Ventura and Ojai evacuations were lifted Monday.

Officials let people in some evacuation areas return home Saturday to get medications and other personal belongings. Some returned to find their homes destroyed.

Andrea Reynolds, one of the lucky ones whose home was intact, told KPCC media partner NBC-4, "I feel sort of guilty because we have a house and all of our friends do not. But we're going to share out home with them." 

City of Ventura

Entire Community of Casitas Springs

Lake Casitas

Unincorporated areas west of Rice Road

Upper Ojai Valley (West)

Unincorporated Ventura County Area

Ventura County North Coast Area

Unincorporated area of Fillmore

Santa Barbara County

Voluntary evacuations

Ojai

Unincorporated area of Fillmore

Santa Barbara County

Road closures

City of Ojai, Ojai Valley and unincorporated areas

City of Ventura and unincorporated areas

City of Fillmore and unincorporated areas

Santa Paula unincorporated area

Santa Barbara County

School closures

Santa Barbara County:

Closed Monday — 

Closed Monday and Tuesday — 

Ventura County:

School Status
Briggs Elementary CLOSED Monday and Tuesday
Fillmore Unified CLOSED to students Mon.
Mupu Elementary CLOSED
Ojai Unified CLOSED all week (Dec. 11-15)
Santa Clara Elementary CLOSED
Santa Paula Unified CLOSED to students Mon. & Tues. Staff returns Tues.
VCOE Career Education Center - Camarillo CLOSED to students Mon. & Tues. Staff returns Tues.
VCOE-operated school sites and classrooms CLOSED to students Mon. & Tues. Staff returns Tues.
Ventura Unified CLOSED to students Mon. & Tues. Staff returns Tues.

Air quality

Officials in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties warned of continuing unhealthy air quality Monday and said free N-95 masks would be distributed to affected residents.

Officials provided the following list of free distribution sites (you can also see them in the map above).

Santa Barbara County:

Ventura County:

While the masks can help, officials advised that only adult-sized masks are available and will provide only limited protection for many children because they require a tight seal.

Ordinary dust masks and surgical masks don't protect from the fine particles found in smoke.

This story has been updated.

ASK US YOUR QUESTIONS

KPCC journalists are covering the fires burning across Southern California and are working hard to answer community members' questions. Let us know what you need to know below.