Fierce gusts to intensify as firefighters battle California wildfire

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LOS ANGELES: California firefighting crews may face on Thursday another round of fierce gusts that have fed a volatile wildfire, one of the largest in the state’s history, as they protect homes from flames and build control lines.

The so-called Thomas Fire, already the state’s fifth-largest blaze of its kind on record, threatened the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito early on Thursday after destroying more than 700 homes since it began on December 4, fire officials said.

“Firefighters will remain engaged in structure defence operations and scout for opportunities to establish direct perimeter control,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement, noting that the fire threatened 18,000 structures.

Gusty Santa Ana winds were forecast to whip up to 80 kph early in the morning and peak during the day before decreasing by evening, while warm temperatures and single-digit relative humidity persist, the National Weather Service said in an advisory. The weather conditions will “contribute to extreme fire behaviour. Any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly,” the weather service said in an advisory.

The Thomas Fire has travelled 43 km, blackening more than 953 square km in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, an area larger than New York City. The conflagration has destroyed 709 single-family homes, damaged 164 others and displaced more than 94,000 people.

It was 30 per cent contained as of Wednesday evening. Many public schools in the Santa Barbara area cancelled classes this week and will not reopen until the annual winter break is completed in January.

Some of the other fires burning over the past week in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been largely brought under control. Investigators determined that the Skirball Fire, which destroyed six homes in Los Angeles’ wealthy Bel-Air neighbourhood and scorched a building at a winery owned by billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch, was started by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment, authorities said on Tuesday.

The Lilac Fire, which burned more than 4,000 acres in northern San Diego County and destroyed 157 structures, was 96 per cent contained by Wednesday, Cal Fire said.