California wildfire becomes state's 3rd-largest, more evacuate

Caroline Anderson, Reuters

Posted at Dec 17 2017 09:59 AM

Firefighters provide structure protection at the historic San Ysidro Ranch as flames from the Thomas Fire, now the third-largest on record, rage in the distance in Montecito, California, US Saturday. Courtesy Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via Reuters

VENTURA - A raging California wildfire became the state's third-largest on record on Saturday as fresh evacuations were ordered amid a resurgence of the harsh winds that have fueled the deadly blaze threatening to scorch 18,000 structures.

The so-called Thomas Fire has already destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including about 750 homes, in Southern California communities since erupting on Dec. 4, state fire officials said.

More than 8,000 personnel using nearly 1,000 engines and 32 helicopters were fighting the blaze that has become the seventh most destructive in the state's history, they said.

"This fire isn't letting up," the California Governor's Office for Emergency Management said on its Twitter feed. "Tough terrain, dry conditions, single-digit humidity, ripping winds make for difficult conditions this weekend."

A new evacuation order was issued for parts of Santa Barbara County on Saturday as high winds whipped the fire through bone-dry terrain. The blaze is chewing up tall grass and brush as it spreads along the scenic Pacific Coast.

Mandatory evacuations were already in place in several Santa Barbara County communities, including Carpinteria and Montecito, and parts of Ventura County. An evacuation order for the city of Ventura, which was hit hard in the first days of the fire, was lifted on Saturday morning.

The Thomas Fire is only 40 percent contained, officials said. Among the places being threatened include the wealthy enclave of Montecito just outside the coastal city of Santa Barbara.


The 13 days of shifting winds and evacuations have taken their toll on a weary population.

Paul Pineda, who lives in Fillmore, about 55 miles (90 kms)northwest of Los Angeles and on the eastern flank of the fire, said he will flee if the blaze gets too close.

"It's pretty crazy. Went to sleep last night about midnight and then woke up to the roar of this fire coming through about 3 a.m." Pineda said.

The wildfires forced many schools to close for days, shut roads and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. They were also responsible for poor air quality throughout Southern California.

The cost of fighting the blaze that was about 40 miles (65 km) wide and 20 miles long has already reached $104 million, authorities said.

For California, this year has been unprecedented in terms of structures lost and the size of the wildfires, officials said. Five of 20 most destructive fires in recorded history ravaged the state in 2017, according to Cal Fire.

The vast landscape charred by the blaze, centered fewer than 100 miles (160 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, reached 259,000 acres (104,800 hectares) early on Saturday. That surpassed the 257,314 acres (104,131 hectares) that California's Rim Fire, which had been the state's third-largest on record, destroyed in 2013, authorities said.

The hot Santa Ana winds have propelled the fire's expansion, at times sending embers far ahead of its main flank. They were forecast to remain strong through Saturday evening in the Santa Barbara County mountains, the National Weather Service warned. Gusts of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) were expected.

From Saturday night through Sunday evening, the winds could lash neighboring Ventura County, the Weather Service said.

Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson, 32, died on Thursday while battling the flames near the Ventura County community of Fillmore. Fire officials said Iverson, the blaze's first fatality, left behind a pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter.

The Thomas Fire was one of several major blazes that broke out in Southern California this month, although the others have been contained.