California firefighters hoping for ‘less powerful wind gusts’ on Sunday

MONTECITO, Calif. — Firefighters trying to prevent one of the biggest fires in California’s history from consuming homes in Santa Barbara and the nearby wealthy enclave of Montecito were hoping less powerful wind gusts would help them Sunday after they managed to stop it from burning thousands of residences.

Crews took advantage of calmer winds overnight, clearing brush and digging containment lines above hillside neighborhoods, fire information officer Lisa Cox said.

“Everything’s holding really well,” Cox said. While gusts were expected to ease somewhat, even the lower intensity winds are still extremely dangerous, she said.

The fire that started nearly two weeks ago has burned at least 700 residences and killed a firefighter, but Cox said firefighters saved thousands of homes from being destroyed.

Some evacuations were lifted to the east in Ventura County where the blaze erupted and officials reported progress protecting the inland agricultural city of Fillmore.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place around Montecito and neighboring Summerland as firefighters sprayed water onto hot spots sparked by wind-blown embers. A portion of the city of Santa Barbara was under mandatory evacuation. At the city’s zoo, workers put some animals into crates and kennels to ready them for possible evacuation.

In downtown Santa Barbara, Maya Schoop-Rutten, owner of Chocolate Maya, said she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear Saturday after strong winds blew through.

“It was absolutely incredible,” she said. “There was a huge mushroom of smoke that happened in just a matter of a few minutes.”

Restaurants and small stores on normally bustling State Street were shuttered Saturday.

“It’s a ghost town,” Schoop-Rutten said. “It’s very, very eerie.”

The 420-square-mile (1,085-square-kilometer) blaze called the Thomas Fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.

Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.

“Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters,” Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.

Pierre Henry, owner of the Bree’osh Bakery in Montecito, said he got a text to evacuate Saturday morning as the fire approached homes.

“The worst was the smoke,” Henry said. “You couldn’t breathe at all and it became worse when the wind started. All the ashes and the dust on the street were in the air. It was very, very frightening.”

There was a spot of good news down the coast. Emergency officials announced that the same fire that was burning about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Montecito was 40 percent contained.

The firefighter who was killed, Cory Iverson, 32, died Thursday of burns and smoke inhalation, according to autopsy results. A funeral procession was planned for him Sunday.

Since the fire began on Dec. 4, about 95,000 people have been placed under mandatory evacuation. The evacuation zone near Santa Barbara on Saturday was 17 miles (27 kilometers) long and up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) wide and the new expansion encompassed about 3,300 people.

Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighborhoods to the legions attacking it: about 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters. It’s the third largest wildfire in state history.

The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $117 million.

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