California wildfires have destroyed 1,000 structures … and counting

Thousands of firefighters are making headway against the vast Thomas Fire burning in Southern California, expressing hope that conditions are becoming more favorable.

The blaze is larger than all of New York City and was about 20% contained as of Monday evening, according to the fire protection agency CAL FIRE.

The wind was cooperating with firefighters Monday and pushing the fire away from nearby communities, Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason told CNN. The breeze had also cleared the air somewhat, leading to improved visibility for fire crews.

**This image is for use with this specific article only**
In this photo released by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department on Sunday, December 10, firefighters battle a wildfire as it advances on homes in Carpinteria, California. Powerful Santa Ana winds and extremely dry conditions are fueling wildfires in Southern California in what has been a devastating year for such natural disasters in the state.
Credit: Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department Via AP

“It’s still not great. It’s bad, but it’s a better bad,” Eliason said, warning that there was a fine line between winds helping firefighting efforts.

“You want the breeze to clear the air, but you don’t want the breeze to fuel the fire,” he said. “Hope springs eternal. Every day we’re going to hope that this progressing and getting closer and closer of being put to bed. But right now we’re going to need some rain and the long range forecast doesn’t show that.”

The Thomas Fire is only one of six major wildfires torching the state. In total, the fires have destroyed more than 1,000 structures since igniting last week.

The blazes vary in size. Together, they are larger than the areas of New York City and Boston combined, or bigger than the area of Singapore.

**This image is for use with this specific article only**
Residents watch the Thomas Fire burn a hillside above La Conchita in California in the early morning hours of December 7, 2017.
Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Latest developments

Making history: At more than 230,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the Thomas Fire is now the fifth largest wildfire in modern California history.

Elevated conditions: Fire conditions are much better than over the weekend, but winds will continue to be a bit breezy at 20 to 40 mph through the middle of the week, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward. Ventura County and surrounding areas are under an elevated fire outlook through Tuesday. Temperatures will remain in the upper 70s and low 80s for the week, as humidity remains low.

Warnings: A “red flag warning” for Los Angeles and Ventura counties has been extended into Wednesday evening, the National Weather Service said. That means elevated fire weather conditions are expected due to gusty winds and low humidity.

Evacuations: Some 93,243 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties Monday afternoon, county fire officials said.

Death toll: The death toll from the Thomas Fire stands at one. Authorities believe Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula, died in a crash while fleeing the fire. Her body was found Wednesday.

Firefighters tested

Santa Barbara County Fire’s Mike Eliason said firefighters were working 24 or 36 hour shifts, typically on two week rotations. Their priorities were saving lives first, then property and then the environment, he said.

“This is the job they all signed up for, so they’re all aware of what can happen and how the job can go. I think spirits are good, they’ve made some saves. I think they realize they have a mission here and a job and they’re really working hard,” Eliason said.

Limited visibility had made it difficult to tackle the blaze.

“This poor visibility has really hindered the fixed wing aircraft because they can’t maneuver in these canyons if you can’t see where you’re going, so we’ve been forced to use helicopters that have been pounding it with gallons and gallons and gallons of water,” he said.

The onshore winds were also pushing the fire back up into the canyon. “The longer the fire burns uphill, the bigger the burned area is going to be (behind it) so when the wind does shift, it’s not going to have anywhere to burn back down into the community,’ he said.

While the outlook was looking more positive, Eliason said he expected the fire to burn for another couple of weeks at least.

“Our hearts go out to all the folks who have lost homes already. Especially this time of year with the holidays coming, you’ve got to feel for these folks who’ve lost just everything. In some cases they had just minutes before they could evacuate and left with just clothes on their backs. We’re trying our best to make that not happen anymore.”

The National Weather Service in Los Angeles tweeted Monday that smoke was expected to affect coastal areas of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties by the afternoon and early evening.

‘They’re nervous’

Southeast of Montecito, Megan Tingstrom, owner of the Red Kettle Coffee in Summerland, has stayed open most of the week since the Thomas Fire started in Ventura County last Tuesday.

She offered free coffee to the firefighters and evacuees who trickled in.

“Some were crying,” she said of the evacuees. “They said they lost their homes.”

She said residents in Summerland, Montecito, Carpenteria and Santa Barbara are hopeful the blaze doesn’t spread to their communities.

“They’re nervous,” Tingstrom said.

On Monday night, flames were visible in the hills by Carpinteria.

Fire officials said it was a controlled burn.

“We are basically trying to slow it down so all the crews can get in there and stop it from coming down to save these structures,” Matthew Cambers from U.S. Forest Services told CNN affiliate KEYT.

‘The worst I’ve seen’

As the flames burned in the foothills on the edge of Montecito in Santa Barbara County on Monday evening, some hoped for the best.

Barbara Nimmo said she had lived through massive wildfires, including the Zaca fire that burned more than 240,000 acres in 2007 and one in Romero Canyon more than 40 years ago. She was staying put, she said, even as blaze glowed on the hillside behind her.

7 images show why the Southern California wildfires are so dangerous

“We’re from here. We know fires and we feel absolutely dedicated to our clients,” said Nimmo, an estate manager for several mansions in the affluent Montecito area. “I’m just devastated overall. This is the worst I’ve seen.”

Man loses 2 homes in wildfires

In just two months, Dr. Antonio Wong lost two houses in two separate California wildfires.

The anesthesiologist, his wife and his son escaped their Santa Rosa home before a wildfire engulfed it in October.

Weeks after Wong sifted through the charred remnants of that house, he learned that his other home in Ventura — which he was renting out to members of the military — burned down last week.

While those tenants are safe, “it was pretty devastating,” Wong said from Santa Rosa on Monday.

“I still haven’t processed the fire down there (in Ventura). I have so much to do to rebuild my house here (that) the thought of trying to rebuild a house down there at the same time is overwhelming. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”