Massive California inferno keeps growing despite all-out battle; Bel-Air wrestles with homeless after encampment fire torches mansions

‘This fire is a beast’: Massive inferno keeps growing despite all-out battle

More than a week after the Thomas fire ignited in Ventura County, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing thousands as it grew into a massive inferno, firefighters are now in a race to protect the pristine coastal communities of neighboring Santa Barbara County before a shift in powerful winds forecast for this weekend.

Across the mountain ridges above Santa Barbara, Summerland and Montecito, firefighters Wednesday were building containment lines, clearing brush, digging breaks and setting small backfires to burn fuel, all in an effort to create barriers to stop the forward march of the fire.

Conditions so far this week have been favorable, allowing firefighters to attack the flames on the southwestern flank of the blaze as it moves west toward the Santa Ynez Mountains.

But the National Weather Service was forecasting sundowner winds blowing southeast at up to 35 mph Friday night, followed by Santa Ana winds Saturday that, at up to 45 mph, could steer the fire toward the southwest.

“When the wind starts pushing it, we can throw everything we have at it and it’s not going to do any good,” Mark Brown, an operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told Santa Barbara residents Wednesday night.

The stakes are high. If the fire moves into Santa Barbara and Montecito, nearly a quarter million residents and 62,000 structures worth $46 billion would be at risk.

Bel-Air wrestles with homeless crisis after encampment fire destroys multimillion-dollar homes

In the tony hillside neighborhoods of Bel-Air and Brentwood, residents say they are aware of the homeless people who live in the shadows of their multimillion-dollar homes.

The affluent area along the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass, home to celebrities, corporate titans and others, has not been immune to the homeless crisis that has spread across Los Angeles. Some residents express sympathy and concern for the homeless, while others are wary and want them out.

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But the Skirball fire, which destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of a large chunk of Bel-Air, has put the issue at the forefront of community debate. Officials say the blaze was caused by a cooking fire at a homeless camp along the 405. Investigators say the fire was set accidentally, but they have not been able to find those who occupied the camp.

Resident Alma Soll, whose balcony was covered with soot by the fire, said that the homeless population is a part of life in the area but that the fire was disconcerting.

“It’s scary,” said Soll, 70.

Many residents said they don’t want to demonize the homeless but also worry about the fire danger in the wake of the blaze, which spread quickly after starting Dec. 6 and was 90% contained a week later.

More Victims of the California
Wildfires: Avocados and Lemons
The largest of the fires has damaged a portion of the harvest in the country’s most productive region for both crops.


LOS ANGELES — The fire that rampaged through the Brokaw Ranch in Ventura County last week was fast, furious and unstoppable, driven by winds gusting at 70 miles an hour.

Flames raced through the chaparral, setting ablaze 60-foot-tall trees whose burning embers flew into the heart of the avocado orchard.

“We lost about 80 percent of our avocado crop,” said Ellen Brokaw, whose family farms 200 acres in Santa Paula and supplies restaurants and national supermarket chains.

The wildfires in Southern California have charred hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed thousands of structures. They have also taken a toll on agriculture, a $45 billion industry in California that employs more than 400,000 people statewide. The Thomas fire, which has now spread from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County, struck the biggest avocado- and lemon-producing region in the United States.

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