The Thomas fire raging out of control near Ojai and Ventura could push into southern Santa Barbara County if the forecast high offshore winds materialize as severely as predicted, fire officials said.
But contingency plans are already in place should that occur, although the extreme fire behavior resulting from the gale-force Santa Ana winds could push embers far from the main blaze to ignite spot fires, a situation that plagued firefighters Wednesday.
“The fire is still a couple of miles way,” Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason said late Wednesday. “If the winds pick up, it might make a push along the canyon in the (Highway) 150 corridor into our county.
“But I was up there this morning, and the fire was still three miles away (from the county line),” he continued.
“As far as the firefighters on the ground are concerned, they don’t see a line there between the counties. They treat the fire just as they would if it crossed any imaginary line.”
Eliason said the unified fire command has already prepared for that eventuality.
“They preposition equipment far ahead of where the fire is predicted to move,” he said. “If it keeps moving west, they have contingency plans in place to deal with that.
“The fire is moving in all directions right now,” he added. “It’s primarily burning around Rincon Hill, along the Highway 150 corridor and in the Highway 101 corridor.”
Firefighters reported zero containment of the fire that broke out about 6:20 p.m. Monday near Thomas Aquinas College on Highway 150 and grew rapidly westward, pushed by gusting Santa Ana winds.
On Wednesday, the flames jumped Highway 101 near the Solimar Beach area.
Mandatory evacuations were in effect in areas of Santa Paula, the Wheeler, Aliso and Rancho Vista canyons, Ventura, Oak View, Casitas Springs, the east and upper Ojai Valley, the north coast of Ventura County and Casitas Pass.
National Weather Service forecasters said this is the “longest and strongest Santa Ana conditions” of the season so far as they issued a red flag warning for Ventura and Los Angeles counties and the mountains of Santa Barbara County through Saturday.
Forecasters were calling for wind gusts from 40 to 60 mph in many areas, reaching 70 mph in areas prone to strong winds and up to 80 mph in the mountains.
Winds are expected to begin slowly decreasing Friday into Sunday, but the strong offshore flow could continue into the middle of next week, they said.
Extremely low humidity, from 5 to 10 percent, is expected during the daytime, with little recovery overnight, forecasters said.
They warned of potentially “very rapid fire growth, long-range spotting … downed trees and power lines, power outages … and blowing dust.”
As of Wednesday, the Thomas fire had grown to 65,000 acres, led to at least one person’s death, destroyed more than 150 homes and was threatening 12,000 structures.
A total of 1,776 firefighters were on the lines Wednesday, with more help expected from throughout the state.
Portions of highways 33 and 101 were closed for a time, but the California Highway Patrol said Wednesday evening that both highways were open in both directions.
More than 100 sheriff’s deputies and officers from the Santa Paula and Ventura police departments as well as he CHP were helping evacuate residents.
With more than 27,000 people evacuated from the threatened areas, two Channel Islands YMCA centers are opening their facilities to those displaced by the fire.
Both the Lompoc Family YMCA at 201 W. College Ave. and the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA at 900 N. Refugio Road in Santa Ynez will allow anyone displaced by the fire to use the facilities free of charge until Sunday.
The Y may extend the open invitation if necessary, YMCA officials said.
Evacuated individuals and families can take a shower, charge their phones, exercise inside, chat and relax at the facilities but should bring identification for the staff to check them in, Y officials said.
The Lompoc YMCA is open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
The Stuart C. Gildred YMCA in Santa Ynez is open 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.