Thomas Fire becomes second largest California wildfire

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Thomas Fire
Firefighters knock down flames as they advance on homes atop Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria. (REUTERS/Mike Eliason)

The Thomas Fire, which has been burning in the coastal areas of southern California for over two weeks has affected over 272,000 acres of land, making it the second largest wildfire in the modern history of California.

On Tuesday, the huge blaze surpassed the Rush Fire of 2012, which was sparked by lightning and affected a total area of 271,911 acres in Lassen County. The wildfire’s massive size is surpassed only by the Cedar Fire in 2003, which affected a total of 272,246 acres in San Diego County.

The wildfire started on Dec. 4 in the foothills near Santa Paula in Ventura County. With the help of relentless gusts of wind, the fire continued to spread rapidly. Seventeen days since it first started, the massive wildfire is still only 60 percent contained.

A short period of calmer winds allowed firefighters to make considerable gains in the containment of the blaze, with Sunday and Monday being hailed as some of the most productive days in battling the blaze.

However, authorities are now expecting the powerful winds to return and pose more challenges to their efforts. According to forecasts, new gusts of Santa Barbara’s powerful sundowner winds are expected to arrive Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. The Santa Barbara County side of the fire will be affected by the winds first, before shifting to the Ventura County side of the fire.

“It is a very large fire, so you’re going to have different wind effects over different parts of the fire,” said Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

The arrival of the winds may be enough to push the Thomas fire to grow larger than the Rush Fire, making it the largest wildfire in California’s modern history.

The blaze has claimed the lives of two people, including one firefighter, destroyed over 1,000 structures, and forced the evacuation of thousands of Southern California residents. With the winds complicating the battle against the massive blaze, fire officials do not anticipate the Thomas fire to be fully contained until Jan. 8.