Half of California’s Thomas Fire contained, but winds set to return

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Firefighters battling one of the biggest blazes in California’s history hailed a “productive day” as weather conditions helped in the effort to bring the Thomas Fire under control.

Monday saw a significant landmark reached, with 50% of the fire contained, and the weather was expected to cooperate Tuesday, with winds of 5 to 10 mph.

“Good progress” was being made, said Mark Brown, operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.

“The weather conditions were just right for us,” Brown said “The winds were blowing into the fire.”

Cooler temperatures and a higher relative humidity also aided the firefighters. Cal Fire reported the blaze is expected to be fully controlled by the end of the first week in January. It has claimed the life of one firefighter.

But fire weather watches are posted for Santa Barbara County late Wednesday into Thursday. Winds could gust to 60 mph, potentially leading to the fire spreading rapidly again. And gusty winds are to return to Los Angeles and Ventura counties on Thursday and Friday.

Fire on course to be biggest recorded in state

As many as 271,000 acres have burned so far, meaning the Thomas Fire is on course to be California’s biggest in recorded history by January 7 — the date authorities expect to have it contained. The largest, the 2003 Cedar Fire near San Diego, destroyed 273,246 acres.

The Thomas Fire also is the third-most destructive in structure losses, with more than 1,000 buildings burned, according to Cal Fire.

To date, it has burned an area larger than New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco combined — and is larger than any city in California except Los Angeles.

About $110 million has been spent fighting the massive blaze, fire officials said. This year has been the costliest for wildfires in US history. Damages topped $10 billion even before the current fires began in Southern California.

Evacuation order lifted

The spate of fires, which have burned for over two weeks without respite, has affected more than 100,000 Californians, with many forced to flee their homes, either through mandatory or voluntary evacuations, and no guarantee they will have anything left once they return.

The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office announced the lifting of evacuation orders for portions of the county Monday night.

Eye in the sky

The US Air Force has made a reaper drone available to the fire teams to aid in suppressing the blaze.

Crews at March Air Reserve Base east of Los Angeles have been working “around the clock to provide almost 24 hours of near real time situational awareness,” according to a Facebook post from the Ventura County Fire Department.

The MQ-9 drone cruises at an altitude of 28,000, meaning its reconnaissance does not interfere with aerial firefighting tools such as helicopters and “super scooper” CL-415 firefighting aircraft.

“At that altitude the team and drone can quickly transition and acquire any point that may be of interest on the fire,” the post says.

“In addition to its speed, the MQ-9 provides both an electro-optical and infrared camera which provides greater clarity on what the incident commander is viewing on the ground.”

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