One week—that’s all it took for the Thomas Fire, a massive wildfire burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, to rage into the 5th  largest wildfire in modern California history, according to the fire protection agency CAL FIRE.
Hitting ground  on December 4, 2017, the wildfire is only 20 percent contained. And according to CAL FIRE’s latest data—at over 230,00 acres of damage, it is also ranked the 10th  most destructive California wildfire in recorded history, but that is subject to change.
However, Thomas isn’t the only fire destroying homes—more than 86,000 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties are at risk of damage from the Rye and Creek Wildfires, according to data  from CoreLogic. Currently, there are six  wildfires in total in the state.
Of the total at-risk homes, 13,526, or 16 percent, with an estimated reconstruction cost value of more than $5 billion are at significant risk of damage, falling in CoreLogic’s “high” and “extreme” risk categories.
In a recent article by Realtors, their Chief Economist Danielle Hale said the wildfire damages on homes could really exacerbate an already challenging market for buyers. "People will probably look more toward apartments,” she said. “But there aren't enough affordably priced rentals to go around either.”
Although the majority of homes, 72,716, or 84 percent, are at “low” or “moderate” risk of damage, wildfires can easily expand to adjacent properties and cause significant damage even if a property is not considered high risk in its own right. This expansion is evident, according to CNN the fires have expanded to a size larger than New York City and Boston—combined.
According to commentary exclusively provided to DS News, Dr. Tom Jeffery, Senior Hazard Scientist at CoreLogic provided the latest updates on the status of the wildfires in this Q&A:
How long could the wildfires last?
As of today, only the Thomas Fire remains largely uncontained. The Creek, Rye and smaller fires in Southern California are now fully or nearly fully contained. The Thomas Fire is at 234,000 acres and only 20 percent contained. This means that it is capable of burning for days, if not several weeks. Containment is a complex process that involves:
- The difficulty of applying resources (personnel and equipment) on the ground when the terrain is rugged and there is minimal road access. That's the case for parts of the Thomas Fire which is running through mountainous terrain.
- High and variable winds that not only push the fire along the ground very quickly but also lift burning embers that are dropped out ahead of the flames and start additional fires beyond the fireline.
- Dry and abundant vegetation (fuels) that enables the fire to burn very hot and very fast across the ground, making it difficult to stay in front of the fire.
- Low humidity that enables fuels to ignite quickly and burn very readily.
All of these factors contribute to the Thomas Fire, making it difficult to contain. If the wind slows for a period of time, firefighters may be able to get the upper hand. However, current weather predictions don’t seem to indicate a dramatic slowing of the Santa Ana winds. It may actually require precipitation (rainfall) to occur before the tide will turn on containing this fire. Other large wildfires in the west have only been fully contained after snow or rain has helped to tamp down the burn. Since conditions can and do change multiple times during the day, it remains unknown how long this fire will burn, but it could last for several more weeks, if not longer.
How much damage are the citizens going to face?
More than 1,000 structures have been lost in the Southern California fires thus far. Not all of them are homes since outbuildings such as barns or detached garages are counted among the structured total. There have been some very high-value homes damaged or destroyed in and around Los Angeles, and there will be lesser value homes within the mix as well. It is too early to say what the total value of the destroyed and damaged structures will be since we will need to identify the individual addresses that were affected, and that is only possible after the fires have been fully contained. There are still thousands of homes at risk from the Thomas Fire, so it is certainly possible that damages could reach $1 billion or more by the time it's over.
What's causing a wildfire like Thomas to expand so quickly?
Specifically, the fuel, the current humid conditions, the terrain and the wind are combining to allow Thomas to continue expanding. The terrain makes fighting the fire more difficult. There is a large volume of fuel that has built up over the last six years of extreme drought conditions, along with the new growth vegetation that sprang up after the rains in California last fall and spring. The lack of precipitation during this current fall, as well as continuing low humidity and dry conditions, have made these dead and dry fuels much more susceptible to burn. Finally, the strong and sustained Santa Ana winds enable the fire to move much faster than it normally would and for longer periods of time. It is much more difficult to get personnel and equipment in front of the fire when it continues to move quickly not just for hours, but day after day.