By Chris Kenning
(Reuters) - California firefighters were helped overnight by weakening winds in their battle against a two-week-old deadly wildfire that has cost nearly $131 million and blackened a widening area about one-third the size of Rhode Island, officials said on Monday.
Even as the Thomas fire, one of the state's largest and most destructive on record, charred more of Ventura County's hills and mountains over the weekend, firefighters expected a boost this week from improving weather conditions.
The blaze and other area wildfires have been whipped up by strong and steady Santa Ana winds sweeping in from eastern California deserts. But the National Weather Service expects them to ease over the next two days.
"With the forecasted winds, temperatures are expected to be cooler and relative humidity higher allowing for favorable firefighting efforts," the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a statement.
By early Monday, about 8,500 firefighters had contained 45 percent of the blaze that broke out on Dec. 4 and scorched 270,500 acres (109,000 hectares) along the scenic Pacific Coast northwest of Los Angeles.
Its size is approaching that of the 2003 Cedar blaze in San Diego County, the largest wildfire in the state's history, which consumed 273,246 acres and caused 15 deaths.
"We're just hoping to make it home for Christmas," Bakersfield Fire Department Captain Tim Ortiz said Sunday at a Santa Barbara recreation center that is serving as a base camp for more than 3,000 firefighters.
The Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 1,000 structures and threatened 18,000 others. Centered less than 100 miles (160 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, it has forced more than 104,000 people to evacuate or seek shelter.
On Sunday firefighters paid their respects during a funeral procession for firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, who died of smoke inhalation and burns on Thursday while battling flames near Fillmore in Ventura County.
Firefighters lined the procession route from Ventura County to his home near San Diego.
So far it has cost $130.9 million to battle the Thomas Fire, which has forced many schools and roads to close and created poor air quality throughout southern California.
Evacuation orders were lifted on Sunday in several parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Five of the 20 most destructive fires on record have ravaged the state in 2017, according to Cal Fire. The cause of the Thomas fire remained under investigation.
(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jeffrey Benkoe)