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.