Winds fuel California wildfire, state's 3rd largest on record

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A raging California wildfire on Saturday became the state's third largest blaze on record, with more devastation possible from a resurgence of the harsh winds that have fueled the deadly fire since the beginning of the month.

The so-called Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including about 750 homes, in coastal communities in Southern California since erupting on Dec. 4, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement.

Authorities described the current conditions as "critical fire weather," including returning winds and extremely low humidity. Coastal Santa Barbara and more sparsely populated inland areas were of special concern, authorities said.

Mandatory evacuations were in place in several Santa Barbara County communities, including Carpinteria and Montecito, and parts of Ventura County, including the city of Ventura, which was hit hard in the first days of the fire.

The cost of fighting the blaze has already reached $104 million, with more than 8,000 firefighters working around the clock, and helicopters and airplanes being used to drop retardant on the flames.

The vast landscape charred by the blaze, centered fewer than 100 miles (161 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, reached 259,000 acres (104,800 hectares) early on Saturday, surpassing the 257,314 acres (104,131 hectares) destroyed by California's Rim Fire in 2013, authorities said. The Rim Fire had ranked as the state's third largest on record.

The Thomas Fire is only 40 percent contained and it threatens 18,000 structures, officials said, including some in the wealthy enclave of Montecito just outside the city of Santa Barbara. The blaze is chewing up tall grass and bone-dry brush as it spreads along the scenic Pacific Coast.

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. The cause is unknown.

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.

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

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Mary Milliken)