LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) — Thousands of firefighters tried Sunday to shield coastal communities from one of the biggest wildfires in California history while a funeral procession rolled past burn-scarred hillsides in honor of one of their colleagues who was killed battling the flames.
Crews cleared brush and dug containment lines above hillside neighborhoods in Santa Barbara County, taking advantage of slightly calmer winds a day after gusts fanned a flare-up that prompted more evacuations.
“Everything’s holding really well,” fire information officer Lisa Cox said. “Thousands of homes have been saved.”
At least 10 more homes, however, were lost to the fire over the weekend, surpassing the 750 mark.
Some 18,000 more homes are still threatened.
While gusts had eased somewhat, even lower intensity winds were still dangerous, she warned. The fire northwest of Los Angeles was 45 percent contained.
Television news footage showed at least one structure burned on property in the wealthy enclave of Montecito, and authorities said damage assessments could take days.
It’s already been too many days for some residents affected by the fire.
“It’s just been such a long-drawn-out process,” one woman trying to return home with her daughter Sunday told CBS2 News. “I just want to get back to some normalcy, you know. It’s been a long, long time.”
She was one of the dozens of Santa Barbara residents who had to evacuate Saturday and were ultimately turned away upon their return.
“We have to make sure electricity’s back on, water’s back on, that the air is safe for them to breathe,” CAL Fire Public Information Officer Jay Smith told CBS2.
While those calmer winds helped firefighters somewhat over the weekend, the Thomas Fire continued to burn at both ends, northwest of Santa Barbara into the Los Padres National Forest, and east near Fillmore, where winds were dangerously strong Sunday evening.
Mourners stood on freeway overpasses to pay respects to firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, who died Thursday of burns and smoke inhalation. His funeral procession was scheduled to wind through five Southern California counties before ending up at a funeral home in San Diego, where he was based with a state fire engine strike team.
He is survived by his pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter.
The blaze is also blamed for the death of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car crash on an evacuation route.
Some evacuation orders were lifted to the east in Ventura County, where the blaze erupted, and officials reported making progress protecting the inland agricultural city of Fillmore.
Jim Holden returned to his neighborhood in the city of Ventura to find his home still standing amid widespread destruction. He said at the height of the inferno, when it appeared his house would be lost, firefighters risked their own safety to retrieve his belongings.
“They broke in and they saved my family photos,” Holden said, wiping away tears.
Mike and Dana Stoneking lost their Ventura home while many of their neighbors’ properties were spared. The Stonekings planned to rebuild and found some solace after retrieving Mike’s wedding ring from the ashes.
The 420-square-mile blaze called the Thomas Fire crested a peak just north of Montecito, where evacuation orders remained in effect. Known for its star power, the enclave includes the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.
“Still praying for our little town,” Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.
A portion of the city of Santa Barbara was also evacuated as a thick plume of smoke blew through city streets. At the city’s zoo, workers put some animals into crates and kennels to ready them for possible evacuation.
Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighborhoods to the legions of people attacking it. About 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states battled the third largest wildfire in state history, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters.
The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $117 million.
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