MONTECITO (CBSLA/AP) —Crews on the lines of the massive Thomas Fire hope to take advantage of a two-day window of calmer winds before potentially dangerous gusts return at mid-week.
The third-largest fire in California history that broke out Dec. 5 near the 150 and 126 highways in Santa Paula is now 271,000 acres and 50 percent contained. It is still threatening 18,000 homes. It has so far destroyed at least 1,024 structures, including at least 755 homes, and damaged 250 more. Full containment isn’t expected until January.
Thomas Fire: Latest Closures and Evacuations
Evacuation orders remain for swaths of Santa Barbara County, including the coastal hillside communities of Montecito and Summerland.
Almost all mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for eastern Ventura County. However, the threat still remains for the area north of Fillmore, the Matilija Wilderness and the Rose Valley.
Fire spokesman Capt. Rick Crawford says cooler temperatures, slightly higher humidity and light winds forecast for Monday and Tuesday will be “critical” for firefighters hoping to make progress against the Thomas Fire. The hot, gusty winds that caused a huge flare-up and forced more evacuations over the weekend are expected to come back Wednesday.
Latest Coverage: The Southern California Wildfires
Red Flag warnings for Ventura and Los Angeles counties expired Sunday night.
Thousands of firefighters tried Sunday to shield coastal the coastal Santa Barbara County communities 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 Sunday, taking advantage of slightly calmer winds after gusts fanned a flare-up that prompted more evacuations Saturday.
“Everything’s holding really well,” fire information officer Lisa Cox said. “Thousands of homes have been saved.”
News footage showed at least one structure burned on property in the wealthy enclave of Montecito, and authorities said damage assessments could take days.
Mourners stood on freeway overpasses to pay respects to 32-year-old CAL Fire engineer Cory Iverson, 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 CAL Fire engine strike team. He is survived by his pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter.
The blaze is also blamed for the Dec. 6 death of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car crash on an evacuation route.
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 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.
While crews on the fire lines got a break from slightly calmer winds, much of the rest of Southern California was buffeted by powerful gusts that once again increased the wildfire risk across the region. Trees came down after wind gusts topped 70 mph in mountain areas and 50 mph along the coast.
Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that destroyed entire neighborhoods to the legions of people attacking it. About 8,400 firefighters from nearly a dozen states battled the blaze, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters. More than 100,000 people have been forced from their homes.
The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $130 million.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)