By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Strong winds in the mountains near Santa Barbara may cause flare-ups on Friday in one of the largest-ever California wildfires that has claimed the life of a firefighter and burned down more than 700 homes, officials said.
As firefighters battled the Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara, strong Santa Ana winds are expected to return farther south, to the mountains of Ventura and Los Angeles counties by Saturday night, the National Weather Service (NWS) said, where other fires had recently raged.
The return of strong winds is also forecast for San Diego County by Sunday night, the NWS said.
The unyielding Santa Ana winds, which blow from the California desert, and humidity in the single digits have helped stoke the blaze that has swept through dry vegetation since it began on Dec. 4 near a small private college in Ojai. It has blackened 252,500 acres (102,183 hectares), or nearly 400 square miles, and is the fourth largest wildfire on record in California since 1932, and could become the third largest.
On Thursday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said 32-year-old firefighter Cory Iverson was killed while tackling the Thomas Fire, which has covered parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Fire officials released little information about the circumstances surrounding Iverson's death. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that he perished in an accident near the community of Fillmore, where a mayday alert was sounded.
"Cory Iverson ... made the ultimate sacrifice to save the lives of others," said Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean during a community meeting on Thursday night.
On Friday in Santa Barbara County's mountains, renewed gusty north winds and low humidity "could affect (one side) of the Thomas Fire for the firefighters," through Saturday evening, said Bonnie Bartling, NWS weather specialist in Ventura County.
The wildfire remained a threat to some 18,000 homes and other structures in the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito along California's coastline.
The Thomas Fire, which was 35 percent contained as of Friday morning, unchanged from Thursday night, has burned 728 homes to the ground and damaged another 171. The blaze has displaced more than 94,000 people.
The fire and others to the south in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have disrupted life for millions of people over the last 11 days.
The fires have forced many schools to close for days, shut roads and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes and into shelters. The fires are also responsible for poor air quality throughout Southern California, compelling commuters to wear protective face masks, local media reported.
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Andrew Roche and Jeffrey Benkoe)