Weakening Santa Ana winds Monday gave firefighters in Santa Barbara and the greater Los Angeles area a chance to catch their breath after a hellish weekend of wildfires left nearly 1,000 homes destroyed in four counties.
According to the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Tea Fire – which first ignited in the hills above Montecito Thursday evening – is now 100 percent contained. The blaze has burned 1,940 acres and destroyed 210 homes.
With the fire extinguished in Montecito, investigators have begun looking into its cause. Officials have determined the Tea Fire was human caused, though they have yet to pin down any specifics.
One spokesman for the state fire agency was quoted saying “all accidental causes” had been eliminated, leaving only an intentional act of arson as a possible cause. County fire officials, however, have not confirmed this.
Investigators are currently looking into any activity near the epicenter of the fire – an area known as the Tea Garden. County Fire officials have asked anyone with information to contact their offices.
Further to the south, in northern Los Angeles and eastern Orange counties, thousands of firefighters continue to battle two considerably larger fires that broke out late Friday and Saturday. Combined, the Sayre Fire and Freeway Complex Fire have burned nearly 40,000 acres, according to CAL FIRE.
The Sayre Fire – which has already been called one of the worst fires to ever strike Los Angeles County – started at approximately 10:29 p.m. Friday near the town of Sylmar, east of Simi Valley. Driven by near hurricane-force winds, the fire spread rapidly, burning a total of 615 houses as it went. Included in that total was a community of nearly 500 mobile homes that was completely decimated by the flames.
Less than 24 hours later, at 9:01 p.m. Saturday, a third wind-driven fire burst into flames in Riverside County. Dubbed the Freeway Complex Fire, the blaze has since spread to Orange County and, in two days, has burned 28,889 acres and 155 structures, a majority of which are private residences.
A reprieve from the infamous Santa Ana winds Monday allowed firefighters to gain the upper hand on the two most recent blazes. The most progress was made by the 3,700 firefighters battling the Freeway Complex Fire, which was completely uncontained midday Sunday, but is now 60 percent contained, according to CAL FIRE.
Despite the calmer winds, fire officials are still concerned with the unseasonably high temperatures and low humidity affecting the region – both of which work against firefighters. Temperatures across Los Angeles County hovered around 90 degrees over the weekend, with some areas of the county recording record highs for this time of year.
Adding to the list of concerns, California is also dealing with a protracted drought which has left much of the vegetation is southern California exceedingly dry – the perfect conditions for brush fire.
The estimated cost for fighting the Tea Fire is currently at $4.9 million, and the Sayre and Freeway Complex Fires are currently estimated at $3.5 million and $4.8 million, respectively. These fires are still largely uncontained, however, and will no doubt prove more expensive.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for all four counties affected, meaning most of the costs of fighting the blazes will fall on the state instead of cash-strapped county governments.