ENVIRONMENT
12/10/2017 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2017

California's Thomas Fire Now Ranks Among Largest In State History

Of the state's largest fires on record, this is the only one to occur in December.

The Thomas fire, one of five destructive blazes currently burning in California, now ranks as the fifth largest wildfire on record in the state.

As of Sunday evening, burned more than 230,000 acres, an area larger than New York City. It also destroyed more than 600 structures in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since sparking last Monday. The fire’s containment, which dropped from 15 to 10 percent according to authorities, continues to threaten more than 15,000 structures. 

The blaze grew by more than 50,000 acres throughout the day Sunday, forcing new evacuations for tens of thousands of people in the Mission Canyon area. It also impacted power lines, leaving at least 85,000 Santa Barbara residents without power on Sunday. 

So far, officials have confirmed one death associated with the fire. The National Weather Service warned Sunday of poor air quality in the region and encouraged people to stay inside and avoid strenuous activity if possible.  

It’s possible the Thomas fire will move up in the rankings in the coming days, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection ― also known as Cal Fire ― said Sunday.

On Cal Fire’s list of the state’s 20 largest fires, which uses records dating back to 1932, the Thomas fire is the only blaze to occur in December, with nearly every other record fire burning during the hot, summer months. But with years of record-high temperatures and devastating drought leaving the state’s forests tinder-dry, fires have become a threat all year long.  

Fire fighters attack the Thomas fire’s north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of
Gene Blevins / Reuters
Fire fighters attack the Thomas fire’s north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai, on Dec. 9, 2017.

“It’s December, and it’s amazing to be able to say we aren’t out of fire season,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said at a new conference on Saturday. “And this is the challenge that we face in California and certainly here in Southern California, that it is a year-round challenge that we are all in.” 

That’s the “new reality” for California, Gov. Jerry Brown also said Saturday, calling the state a “very wonderful place, but a place that’s getting hotter” as global temperatures rise.

Flames spread in a valley from a Santa Ana wind-driven brush fire called the Thomas fire near Ventura, California, on Dec. 5,
Gene Blevins / Reuters
Flames spread in a valley from a Santa Ana wind-driven brush fire called the Thomas fire near Ventura, California, on Dec. 5, 2017.

“And we know from the changing in the climate that it’s going to exacerbate everything else,” Brown said, echoing climate scientists’ warnings that California’s highly variable climate will only become more vulnerable to wildfires and other natural disasters. 

The number of large fires burning across Southern California speaks to that concern. As of Sunday, Cal Fire said, the five major ongoing blazes had burned 200,000 acres, forced 98,000 evacuations, damaged or destroyed 834 structures and threatened around 25,000 in total.

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