Why the Monstrous Thomas Fire Keeps Burning: Winds, Terrain and Fuel
Flames as tall as a high-rise galloping up and down mountainsides. Coastal communities shrouded in smoke. Armies of firefighters on the defensive with little hope of corralling a wildfire that refuses to quit.
The scene from this month’s Thomas fire is all too familiar in the Los Padres National Forest, where jagged ridges and steep canyons of chaparral have been tinder for some of the state’s biggest wildfires.
In the course of a week, the Thomas exploded into the fifth-largest wildfire in the state’s modern record. At 231,700 acres Monday evening, it ranked just behind 2007’s Zaca fire (No. 4) and ahead of 1932’s Matilija blaze (No. 6). They all have chewed their way across the Los Padres above Santa Barbara, where an utter sense of remoteness reigns an hour’s drive from some of California’s priciest real estate.
But the very qualities that make its wilderness a beacon for hikers and the dramatic backdrop to Santa Barbara also make it a firefighters’ nightmare. The mountain ranges run east-west — in line with dry winds from the interior. Deep canyons crease country that is twisted and folded by nature’s forces. There are few places where fire crews can take a stand.
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