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Firefighters Battle The 5th Largest Blaze In California's History


Here in Southern California, firefighters are making progress, but there is still concern. One fire is creeping closer to some of the affluent areas around Santa Barbara. Firefighters were hoping tamer winds might slow down the Thomas Fire, but they also knew one shift in the wind or even a burning ember could reverse all of their work. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: A team of prison inmates was perched precariously on the steep slope of a canyon on Tuesday. They're using chainsaws to cut firebreaks. Another team is hosing down hotspots. The night before, this mountain was burning. Battalion Chief Ron Mclaughlin of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Defense watches from the road above.

RON MCLAUGHLIN: We have all these situations we have to run into in the fire service and, you know, I mean, we have these houses on a ridgetop that has a canyon on one side and a canyon on the other side that's full of brush.

FADEL: The steep cliffs and deep canyons make for dangerous work. Mclaughlin said the fire was still out of control, but the slower winds were in their favor.

MCLAUGHLIN: I'd like to think that we're turning the corner now. You know, we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel but, you know, one more little wind pickup up from the Santa Anas, you know, all bets are off.

FADEL: The fire was creeping towards Summerland and Montecito, a short distance from Santa Barbara. Schools are closed. The state university rescheduled finals. People walk their dogs and did their errands wearing surgical masks. Local hotels are filled with evacuees, if they haven't been ordered to evacuate themselves. Brice Bennett is the CAL FIRE spokesman for the Thomas Fire.

BRICE BENNETT: It's not safe to fight fire in these canyons. The fire intensity is just too much. The brush is too dense, and it's just too steep.

FADEL: So firefighters are on the winding roads below keeping areas around homes cool, spraying fire retardant and waiting. The smoke is so bad here that aircraft can't fly.

BENNETT: What we're trying to do is bring the fire to a location where we can draw a line in the sand and actually put it out.

FADEL: The weather needs to shift, firefighters say. It's too dry. It's too hot and in December, it's snowing white ash. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Montecito, Calif.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, we describe the full name of CAL FIRE as California Department of Forestry and Fire Defense. The correct name is California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.]