California fire grows into third largest in state history
VENTURA – Reuters
A raging California wildfire powered by fierce winds grew into the third-largest in state history on Dec. 16 as forced evacuations turned neighborhoods into ghost towns and ash fell in some areas like heavy snow.
High winds and dry conditions were expected to remain through the weekend to power the so-called Thomas Fire in Southern California. It has destroyed more than 1,000 structures and threatened 18,000 more since erupting on Dec. 4, including homes in the wealthy enclave of Montecito just outside the coastal city of Santa Barbara.
"It is a beast," Santa Barbara County Fire Department Division Chief Martin Johnson told a news conference. "But we will kill it," he said.
Nearly 8,500 personnel using nearly 1,000 engines and 32 helicopters were battling the blaze, which was 40 percent contained on Dec. 16 evening. It has become the seventh-most destructive in state history, officials said.
A new evacuation order was issued for parts of Santa Barbara County on Saturday as high winds whipped the fire through bone-dry terrain.
In Montecito, smoke billowing from nearby canyons and pushed by the high winds choked the air, hindering aircraft from dropping flame retardant, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services said.
The wildfire forced many schools to close for days, shut roads and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. It was also responsible for poor air quality throughout Southern California.
An evacuation order for the city of Ventura, which was hit hard in the first days of the fire, was lifted on Dec. 16 morning.
The total cost of fighting the fire had come to more than $110 million by Dec. 16 evening, as flames blazing over steep hills lit up the night skies.
This year has been unprecedented for California 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 160 km northwest of downtown Los Angeles, reached 108,253 hectares late on Dec. 16. The largest wildfire in state history was the 2003 Cedar blaze in San Diego County that consumed 110,579 acres and caused 15 deaths.