Sonoma County firefighters facing long battle against Southern California fires

Sonoma County firefighters could find themselves battling Southern California wildfires through Christmas if predictions of an unusually dry December come to pass.

Local crews attacking the Thomas fire in Ventura County on Thursday for the third straight day were committed to seeing the firefight through to its conclusion, but also grappling with the realization that it could be a long time before they return home.

“We came in thinking this would be a more typical two-day wind event, but that has not been the case,” Jack Piccinini, chief of the Rincon Valley and Windsor fire protection districts, said from Ventura Thursday morning. “This particular fire has gotten so big that I would not be surprised if we are here on Christmas.”

Fierce Santa Ana winds overnight swelled the Thomas fire north of Ventura to 115,000 acres, dashing any hopes of quick containment, Piccinini said. His crew spent the evening battling to save homes along the fire’s northern perimeter, racing between Carpinteria on the coast and Ojai inland in an at-times futile effort to corral the blaze.

“Things got a little crazy,” Piccinini said.

The total number of homes destroyed by the four main fires in the region grew to 439 by Thursday night, a figure almost certain to increase as assessments continue. Containment of the Thomas fire, the largest of the four, remained a meager 5 percent.

Progress on others wasn’t much better. The Creek fire east of San Fernando had scorched nearly 13,000 acres and was at ?10 percent containment. The Rye fire north of Santa Clarita grew to 7,000 acres and was at 25 percent containment. The Skirball fire in Bel Air was the smallest at 475 acres and 20 percent containment , but noteworthy for the peril in which it put the exclusive hillside community.

While a vast number of firefighters and equipment have helped protect Ventura along the fire’s southern flank, Piccinini said he worries about the fire’s growth northeast further into the Los Padres National Forest, where fuels are plenty, and northwest, where populated areas like Carpinteria and Santa Barbara would be at risk, he said.

He also expressed concern about the impact on firefighters, who are facing a fire season that just won’t end.

“We are really nearing that threshold of hitting the wall emotionally, of hitting the wall in terms of fatigue,” Piccinini said.

Todd Derum, Cal Fire division chief in Sonoma County, echoed that sentiment, and said it applies not just to firefighters, but to their families back at home. With another extended firefight looking likely, Derum said the strain on spouses is significant, especially as the holidays approach.

“People are hurting,” said Derum, who is also assigned to the Thomas fire.

Sonoma County sent two local strike teams south, one on Tuesday and a wildland team on Wednesday, each with multiple engines.

The first was made up of firefighters from Santa Rosa, Forestville, Gold Ridge, Healdsburg and Sonoma. The second was comprised of units from Santa Rosa, Bennett Valley, Rincon Valley, Geyserville and Sonoma Valley, according to fire dispatchers.

Cal Fire also sent a strong contingent from the area, including four strike teams of five engines each, two dozers, plus more than 60 firefighters and a team of large fire managers.

Firefighters weren’t the only ones who jumped in to help.

During the fires in October, Santa Rosa received assistance from Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman. When the Thomas fire erupted Monday, Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn sought to return the favor. He headed to Ventura County Tuesday and has been working in the emergency operations center all week.

“The similarities really made me think here was an opportunity to take what the team in Santa Rosa had experienced to try to assist one of our other communities in California manage through a very, very difficult situation,” McGlynn said Thursday.

Santa Rosa Capt. Jack Thomas, who is heading the first strike team, said he and his crew spent Wednesday doing structure defense and patrols on the Creek Fire in Sylmar. He marveled at the number of firefighters providing mutual aid to the area, some from as far away as Oregon and Nevada.

“They really did pull the pin here,” Thomas said.

He said he didn’t know whether they would be sent next to the Thomas fire or to San Diego County, where new fires erupted Thursday. But wherever they head, Thomas said he’s hoping the forecast high winds don’t materialize so they can make some real progress toward containment.

A “red flag” warning, indicating extreme fire danger because of gusty winds and low humidity, has been extended for all of Southern California through Saturday.

For Thomas, a 32-year fire veteran, it’s been a “hell of a year,” and one he’d like to see end without any more homes or lives being lost.

“I don’t think this state can handle any more devastation,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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