California wildfire rages, threatens communities

Image: Fire fighters attack the Thomas Fire’s north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai, California. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

By Ben Gruber

VENTURA, Calif. (Reuters) – Crews battling a massive wind-driven California wildfire that has torched nearly 1,000 buildings and charred an area larger than New York City on Monday struggled to protect communities menaced by flames along the state’s scenic coastline.

The Thomas Fire ignited a week ago and has burned 230,500 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, about 100 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Firefighters were contending with severe weather as the fire expanded into Santa Barbara County, threatening the communities of Montecito and Summerland, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a statement.

(For a graphic on Southern California wildfires click http://tmsnrt.rs/2jCVLeu)

Santa Ana winds and the rugged mountainous terrain have hindered firefighters as they battle the blaze, which has destroyed 644 homes and 138 outbuildings and damaged another 187 buildings, officials said.

The fire was 15 percent contained, up from 10 percent on Sunday night. The Thomas Fire grew on Sunday by 56,000 acres and made a run of 7 miles, Concialdi said.

The fire had earlier passed along the ridge line above the coastal city of Carpinteria in Santa Barbara County, destroying six homes in an agricultural area just outside the city, Carpinteria Mayor Fred Shaw said by phone.

“Anytime the winds kick up, fires do weird things, and if the wind kicked up from the other direction it could come right back,” Shaw said.

Nearly 6,397 firefighting personnel are working on the blaze, which is the fifth-largest wildfire on record in California, according to Cal Fire.

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, speaking by phone, said winds have calmed a bit, keeping the fire in the hills outside of the city. The fire was not spreading quickly, but it also is not clearing out smoke.

“Every where you go, you see people wearing the masks,” said Schneider.

A layer of ash is also gathering over the city, she said.

The mayor said public schools in Santa Barbara and some school systems nearby have canceled classes this week and will not reconvene until the annual winter break is completed in January.

Celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, who are reported to have homes in the wealthy enclave of Montecito just outside Santa Barbara, took to Twitter to express concern.

“Our house is under threat of being burned,” DeGeneres wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “We just had to evacuate our pets. I’m praying for everyone in our community and thankful to all the incredible firefighters.”

A spokesman for DeGeneres declined to provide any other details on Monday.

Some of the other fires burning over the past week in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been largely controlled by the thousands of firefighters on the ground this week.

Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 95 and 93 percent contained, respectively, by Monday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in the posh Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles was 85 percent contained.

North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre (1,660 hectare) Lilac Fire was 80 percent contained by Monday morning.

(Reporting by Phoenix Tso and Ben Gruber,; Additional reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Keith Coffman in Denver and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Graff and Andrew Hay)

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