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22nd of January 2018

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Thomas Fire becomes largest blaze in California history, during state's worst fire year

A strong wind blows embers at the Thomas Fire on Dec. 16, 2017 in Montecito, California.A strong wind blows embers at the Thomas Fire on Dec. 16, 2017 in Montecito, California.Image: David mcnew/Getty Images2016%2f09%2f15%2f9c%2fhttpsd2mhye01h4nj2n.cloudfront.netmediazgkymde1lzaz.949e4By Andrew Freedman2017-12-24 15:05:33 UTC

California's Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties has eclipsed the 2003 Cedar Fire as the largest wildfire in Golden State history, at a whopping 273,400 acres. This puts the blaze's burned area as larger than New York City, and nearly the equivalent of the sprawling city of Los Angeles. 

The fire has destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged 280 more. During the past week, firefighters have made significant gains, with the state reporting 78 percent containment as of early Sunday morning. The record size was eclipsed on Dec. 22, with additional growth possible before full containment is made sometime in early 2018.

This year is proving to be California's worst wildfire season on record. In October, more than 40 were killed and at least 10,000 homes lost when fast-moving fires tore through Sonoma and Napa Counties, devastating the community of Santa Rosa, in particular.

The state is seeing a trend toward more damaging wildfire seasons, with 14 of the 20 largest blazes on record occurring since they year 2000. This is due to a combination of factors, from climate change to urban sprawl.

Temperature departures from average during summer 2017 across the state of California.

Temperature departures from average during summer 2017 across the state of California.

Image: noaa/ncei.

The Thomas Fire, along with other blazes that erupted across the state during the late summer and fall, resulted from a combination of climate extremes that are becoming more common in the state as a result of global climate change. Repeated, record heat waves sent temperatures soaring into the triple-digits as late as October, drying out vegetation that is now serving as fuel for the fires. 

Meanwhile, a large bulge, or ridge, in the jet stream has been steering Pacific storms away from California week after week, pushing the fire season deeper into the year. Computer model projections show virtually no precipitation falling in southern California during the next two weeks, for example. 

The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this image of the Thomas Fire burn scar on Dec. 18, 2017.

The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this image of the Thomas Fire burn scar on Dec. 18, 2017.

Image: nasa

Recent studies indicate there may be connections between altered weather patterns, which are favoring drier conditions in California, and climate change. 

The Thomas Fire is now the LARGEST wildfire in modern CA history at 273,400 acres, surpassing the 2003 Cedar fire. Getting the update in the PIO room at the Incident command post today. Saw history made on the fireline today. #thomasfire #cafire

— Stuart Palley (@stuartpalley) December 23, 2017

The summer of 2017 was the state's hottest on record, following one of the wettest winters, which in turn ended the longest drought in modern California history. As a result of these back-to-back extremes, thousands of California's trees have died, leaving them susceptible to toppling, taking power lines with them, during the typical Santa Ana and "El Diablo" wind events that struck during the fall and early winter. Both the wine country fires and Thomas Fire occurred during periods of these intense winds, and downed wires are a suspected cause of some of the blazes. 

December is not a typical month for California wildfires. In fact, it's usually part of the state's critical wet season, which provides the rain and mountain snow needed for replenishing water supplies. 

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