Calmer winds ‘critical’ in Southern California firefight

A Christmas tree in front of the Thomas Fire.

Courtesy Santa Barbara County Fire Department

A Christmas tree in front of the Thomas Fire.

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Crews trying to corral Southern California's enormous wildfire hope to take advantage of a two-day window of calmer winds before potentially dangerous gusts return at mid-week, officials said Monday.

The blaze that broke out two weeks ago still threatens communities northwest of Los Angeles, where thousands remain under evacuation orders.

Cooler temperatures, slightly higher humidity and light winds forecast for Monday and Tuesday will be "critical" for firefighters hoping to make progress against the Thomas Fire, said fire spokesman Capt. Rick Crawford.

"For right now the winds seem very favorable," he said. "We're always looking out for those unpredictable gusts."

The hot, gusty winds that caused a huge flare-up and forced more residents to flee over the weekend are expected to come back Wednesday.

The fire churning through brush in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has burned more than 1,000 structures, including at least 750 homes. Some 18,000 more residences are still threatened. The 422-square-mile blaze, the third largest in state history, is 45 percent contained.

Television news footage showed at least one structure burned on property in the wealthy enclave of Montecito, and authorities said damage assessments could take days.

Michael and Sonia Behrman told KABC-TV they fled their hillside home when heavy smoke blew in and returned to find it in ashes.

"It's just hard to put into words," Michael Behrman said. "It's where we live. It's just smoke and ruin right now."

The body of a firefighter killed while battling the blaze was transported Sunday in a procession that rolled through five counties before ending up at a funeral home in San Diego. Mourners stood on freeway overpasses to pay respects to firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, who died Dec. 14 of burns and smoke inhalation. He is survived by his pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter.

The blaze is also blamed for the Dec. 6 death of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car crash on an evacuation route.

Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that destroyed entire neighborhoods to the legions of people attacking it. More than 8,000 firefighters from nearly a dozen states battled the third largest wildfire in state history.

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