For hundreds of families in the Southern California communities of Santa Barbara and Ventura, this month’s wildfires could not get any worse.

Their homes and all of their possessions have been destroyed in hellish flames stoked by arid, Santa Ana winds. More than 1,000 structures are reduced to ash.

The fire that has caused the most damage and heartache — the Thomas Fire — has grown into the fifth-largest in state history. Weather forecasts suggest that it will climb even higher on that list before the month is over.

High pressure and dry, offshore winds have finally given way to slightly cooler temperatures and an increase in humidity. Unfortunately, the relief is only temporary, and warm, dry weather is forecast to return early next week. Red flag fire warnings are in effect through Friday morning, and will likely be extended or reissued after the brief reprieve.

In Los Angeles and Ventura counties, wind gusts could reach 40-50 mph in the valleys, and 55 mph in the mountains. Humidity could be as low as the single digits.

The long-term challenge, though, will be the lack of rain. Forecast models are predicting almost zero rain in the entire state for at least the next two weeks.

With smoke from the Thomas Fire choking the city, air quality in Santa Barbara is at a new low. Health officials have given away more than 200,000 protective face masks over the past week. The masks are designed to filter out the harmful fine particles that cannot only lead to asthma attacks, but are small enough to enter the bloodstream via the lungs.

On Sunday, the amount of pollution in the air spiked to nearly twice the threshold designated as hazardous for the whole population.

Without any help from Mother Nature, officials are warning, fire growth is going to continue on nearly all sides of the Thomas Fire — west, east and north — in the coming days. The blaze was approaching 240,000 acres burned as of Wednesday morning.

“Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and surrounding areas” are all at risk, according to the Wednesday morning briefing.

With wind gusts surging to 50 mph and humidity levels pathetically low, red-flag fire warnings have been up in Southern California for more than a week. Given the forecast, they will probably continue well into next week.


The sun, a deep red/orange from the smoke from the Thomas Fire, sets over a field in Santa Paula, Calif., on Dec. 12. The Thomas Fire has burned through almost 240,000 acres. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Flames from the  Thomas Fire billow above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon in Montecito, Calif., on Dec. 12. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department)