SANTA BARBARA (California) • Crews battling a massive wind-driven California wildfire that has torched nearly 800 buildings and charred 93,000ha braced themselves yesterday to protect communities menaced by flames along the state's scenic coastline.
The Thomas Fire ignited last week and is burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, 160km north-west of Los Angeles.
"Fire will continue to threaten the communities of Carpenteria, Summerland, Montecito and surrounding areas," the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a Sunday night update.
Santa Ana winds and the rugged mountainous terrain have hindered firefighters as they battle the blaze, which has destroyed 790 houses, outbuildings and other structures, and left 90,000 homes and businesses without power.
"A lot of these guys (firefighters) have fought a lot of fires in the past few months and are fatigued," said fire captain Steve Concialdi, spokesman for the Thomas Fire. He said firefighters from 11 western states are aiding firefighting efforts.
He added that the fire is 10 per cent contained, down from 15 per cent last Saturday after it blew up on Sunday, growing by (23,000ha) in one day and making a run of 11km.
Nearly 5,800 firefighting personnel are working on the blaze, Cal Fire said. The cost of fire-fighting as of Sunday was nearly US$34 million (S$46 million), the agency added. It is already the fifth-largest wildfire on record in California.
AT A LOSS
It would be one thing if I were 40 or 50, but I'm 78. What the heck do I do?
MS PEGGY SCISSONS, 78, an evacuee at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
At the University of California, Santa Barbara, final exams set for this week have been postponed, chancellor Henry Yang said in a letter to the campus community.
Air quality and transportation issues, along with power outages that have affected the school's information technology department, forced the delay of exams until January.
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 90 per cent contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in the posh Bel Air neighbourhood of Los Angeles was 75 per cent contained.
North of San Diego, the 1,660ha Lilac Fire was 75 per cent contained by Sunday and most evacuation orders had been lifted.
At the Ventura County Fairgrounds, evacuees slept in makeshift beds while rescued horses were sheltered in stables.
Ms Peggy Scissons, 78, arrived at the shelter with her dog last Wednesday, after residents of her mobile home park were forced to leave.
She has not yet found out whether her home is still standing.
"I don't know what's gonna happen next or whether I'll be able to go home," she said. "It would be one thing if I were 40 or 50, but I'm 78. What the heck do I do?"
The fires that began on Dec 4 collectively amounted to one of the worst conflagrations across Southern California in the last decade.
They have, however, been far less deadly than the blazes in Northern California's wine country in October that killed more than 40 people.