December 20, 2017 / 11:20 AM / a year ago

Stronger winds loom as crews make progress on California wildfire

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Crews battling Southern California’s sprawling wildfire made incremental progress in containing the two-week-old blaze but faced forecasts for stronger winds on Wednesday that threatened to make it the biggest in state history.

Firefighters halted the spread of the so-called Thomas fire at 272,000 acres (110,100 hectares) as of Tuesday and carved containment lines around 60 percent of its perimeter, up from 55 percent, a coalition of fire and law enforcement agencies said.

With progress being made against the blaze - which has scorched the dry coastal mountains, foothills and canyons of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties northwest of Los Angeles - officials said they had cut the number of firefighters to 6,500 from a peak of 8,500 over the past few days.

However, wind gusts from the north were expected to accelerate to 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour) at sunset on Wednesday and continue into Thursday, creating extreme fire danger conditions for Santa Barbara County, the National Weather Service said.

Ventura County, which has taken the brunt of the fire, is likely to experience 40 to 50 mph (64 to 80 kph) winds on Thursday and Friday, it said.

Fire managers were cautiously optimistic that they could protect populated areas against the predicted return of stronger winds, but were not letting their guard down.

“We are not out of the woods yet on this fire,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters on Tuesday. “As we are all aware, this fire has proven to be very stubborn and very unpredictable.”

Brown said some 2,000 of the county’s evacuees were allowed to return to their homes on Tuesday.

The Thomas blaze, which became California’s second largest wildfire on Tuesday, is nearly as large as the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County, which consumed a record 273,246 acres (110,579 hectares) and killed 15 people.

Slideshow (5 Images)

More than 1,000 homes and other buildings have gone up in flames, and about 18,000 structures remained listed as threatened since the fire started on Dec. 4. The cause has not been determined.

One firefighter died last Thursday near the town of Fillmore in Ventura County.

The Thomas fire was initially stoked by hot, dry Santa Ana winds blowing with rare hurricane force from the eastern desert, spreading flames across miles of drought-parched chaparral and brush in California’s rugged coastal terrain.

Writing by Peter Szekely in New York; additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis

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