The Thomas Fire began on December 4 in Santa Paula, about 40 miles east of Santa Barbara. In the coming weeks, it became the largest fire in the history of California recordkeeping. The wildfire began when strong winds caused SoCal Edison power lines near Thomas Aquinas College to explode in an electrical arc, igniting dry grass below. Flued by strong winds, the fire grew to 500 acres within an hour and crossed Highway 150 into Santa Paula.
At around 10 p.m., the fire took out a SoCal Edison plant and knocked out power to some 100,000 homes and businesses, including most of the city of Ventura and up through Goleta. By 11 p.m. the fire had grown to 20,000 acres and was visible in the hills above Ventura City Hall. Thousands of residents evacuated. By daybreak, the fire had grown to 40,000 acres and 150 buildings in Ventura had been destroyed including Vista Del Mar hospital.
That morning, the fire’s western front jumped Highway 33 and began burning into Casitas Springs while its eastern front burned towards the town of Fillmore. The fire was now 50,000 acres and a mandatory 10 p.m. curfew was issued for the entire city of Ventura. A boil-water warning was also issued for the cities of Ventura and Ojai as the fire threatened pumps at Casitas Water District, and the town of La Conchita, along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, was evacuated.
By 9 a.m. on December 6, the fire had grown to 65,000 acres with zero containment and a hazardous air warning had been issued for the cities of Ventura, Oxnard, and Camarillo, as thick smoke was blown back at the coast by onshore winds. That evening, as the bulk of the blaze burned west from Ventura, the northern edge of the fire burned up and around the mountains surrounding the city of Ojai. The entire city was placed under a rapid mandatory evacuation.
That night, the fire’s southern edge moved closer to La Conchita and jumped Highway 101 at Seacliff Drive. Authorities closed the freeway in both directions. The fire continued to burn through the hills and by 6 p.m. on December 7, it had burned 115,000 acres and destroyed 439 structures. The next morning, ash was falling like snow from Ventura to Santa Barbara and people were told to stay inside and to wear dust masks outside. By then, 3,500 firefighters, 21 helicopters, 544 engines, 46 hand crews, and 26 bulldozers had been assigned to the now 132,000-acre fire that was only 10% contained. By December 9, the bulk of the blaze had moved on from Ventura and most of the city was taken off of mandatory evacuation. Some 530 structures had burned.
While Ventura was now mostly safe, the fire continued to grow rapidly and that night entered Santa Barbara County. At 1:40 a.m. on December 10, rolling blackouts began to hit Carpinteria and Santa Barbara. By 6 a.m. that morning mandatory evacuations were issued for large areas of Carpinteria, Summerland, and Montecito as the fire crept west along the mountainsides.
By noon, evacuation advisories were issued for much of eastern Santa Barbara as the blaze exploded into the foothills. By 6 p.m. the fire had grown to 230,000 acres and was so hot that it was creating its own weather patterns.
For the next two days the fire steadily crept north and west along the foothills as firefighters took advantage of onshore winds to perform a controlled backburn. By December 15, the fire had burned nearly 260,000 acres but containment was up to 40%, and its growth along the Santa Barbara foothills had been slowed by effective firefighting.
Just as people began to hope the blaze was reaching its conclusion, the Thomas fire roared back to life for a final show on the morning of December 16. Winds of up to 65 mph winds caused the fire to explode along the ridgeline. Evacuation were issued for all neighborhoods above Alameda Padre Serra and Salinas Street and the national guard was deployed to help maintain order.
As the fire’s westward expansion was halted the next day as it hit the Tea and Jesusita burn scars. From there, it continued to burn remote backcountry. By December 21, all evacuation orders in Santa Barbara County were lifted. The 272,000-acre fire was 65% contained. Over the next several days, containment grew significantly and by Christmas, firefighters had achieved 88%.
Full contained was reached on January 12, 2018. The Thomas Fire burned 281,000 acres, then the largest wildfire in state history. In total, 1063 structures were destroyed and two people lost their lives — one firefighter and a woman who died in a car accident fleeing the fire.