"It Looks Like A War Zone" - Californians Describe Thomas Fire's Devastation

Now the third-largest wildfire in California history, the Thomas Fire has blazed through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it exploded into existence two weeks ago under mysterious circumstances.

With Cal Fire ordering thousands more people in Santa Barbara to evacuate as dry conditions and powerful winds help feed the flames, which were barely 40% contained as of Sunday. Twelve thousand people were evacuated in Santa Barbara County, with animals at the local zoo threatened as well. Santa Barbara Zoo closed Saturday and many animals were placed into cages in case of possible evacuations, zoo officials said.

Meanwhile, residents who had evacuated their homes in Ventura County, where the fire began, were allowed to return Saturday.

 

 

The fire is so massive that more than 8,400 firefighters are working around the clock to save lives and contain it. It's bigger in acreage than New York City, and has turned neighborhoods to piles of soot and concrete as it churns through the area.

 

 

At least five of the six wildfires that ignited two weeks ago were still active as of Sunday, according to CNN. But the Thomas Fire is by far the biggest, as the map below illustrates.

Here’s a roundup of the latest developments from CNN and Cal Fire:

  • Cause of death: Firefighter Cory David Iverson, 32, died of "thermal injuries and smoke inhalation," according to autopsy results from the Ventura County medical examiner's office. Iverson lost his life battling the Thomas Fire on Thursday. A total of two people have been killed since the fire started.
  • Hefty price tag: About $110 million has been spent fighting the massive blaze, fire officials said. It was 40% contained Saturday night.
  • Improving weather conditions: Santa Ana winds did not immediately materialize on Sunday morning, though firefighters had been expecting the worst. Red-flag warnings were in effect for a large swath of Southern California through late Sunday, with wind gusts of up to 55 mph expected overnight, according to CNN meteorologist Gene Norman.
  • In the record books: The blaze has charred 267,500 acres and is now the third-largest wildfire in modern California history.

Residents who spoke with CNN described being taken by surprise, as the wildfires spread faster than many expected. Residents described being awoken in the middle of the night by fire and police officials assisting in evacuation efforts.

Jeannette Frescas was not concerned about the Thomas Fire until the massive blaze reached her neighborhood in Ventura, California.

 

"At midnight, I woke up with a flashlight in my face," Frescas told CNN affiliate KEYT. "I looked out my window and there were flames that were like, a hundred feet, all around us."

 

Like many residents, Frescas was caught off guard by the fire that has roared across Southern California for 13 days. She's one of tens of thousands of residents who piled into cars and fled as ferocious winds drove the third-largest blaze in modern state history through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

 

"What was once a paradise was like a war zone," Frescas said of her apartment complex, which was destroyed by the blaze. "It's the scariest thing I've been through in my entire life."

One resident described being woken up by her son in law and told that she needed to grab her stuff and go - immediately.

Ventura resident Patricia Rye woke up to her son-in-law pounding on her door. She didn't get a chance to pack any valuables, and fled her home of 17 years in the dead of the night.

 

"I didn't have time to take anything," Rye told the affiliate. "My wallet, or any of my personal things. I literally left with the clothes on my back. If I had been thinking I would have got into my car, but I wasn't thinking so my car was there."

The Thomas fire alone has caused well over $100 million in damage, though authorities likely won’t have a final figure for weeks, if not months. An extended stretch without rain has allowed the fires to burn without any significant natural impediments.