Thousands of firefighters tried Sunday to shield coastal communities from one of the biggest wildfires in California history while a funeral procession rolled past burn-scarred hillsides in honour of one of their colleagues who was killed battling the flames.
Crews cleared brush and dug containment lines above hillside neighbourhoods in Santa Barbara County, taking advantage of slightly calmer winds a day after gusts fanned a flare-up that prompted more evacuations.
“Everything’s holding really well,” fire information officer Lisa Cox said. “Thousands of homes have been saved.”
While gusts had eased somewhat, even lower intensity winds were still dangerous, she warned. The fire northwest of Los Angeles was 45 per cent 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.
Mourners stood on freeway overpasses to pay respects to firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, who died Thursday of burns and smoke inhalation. His funeral procession was scheduled to wind through five Southern California counties before ending up at a funeral home in San Diego, where he was based with a state fire engine strike team. 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.
The fire that started nearly two weeks ago has burned more than 1,000 structures, including at least 750 homes. Some 18,000 more homes are still threatened.
Some evacuation orders were lifted to the east in Ventura County, where the blaze erupted, and officials reported making progress protecting the inland agricultural city of Fillmore.
Jim Holden returned to his neighbourhood in the city of Ventura to find his home still standing amid widespread destruction. He told KABC-TV that at the height of the inferno, when it appeared his house would be lost, firefighters risked their own safety to retrieve his belongings.
“They broke in and they saved my family photos,” Holden said, wiping away tears.
Mike and Dana Stoneking lost their Ventura home while many of their neighbours’ properties were spared. The Stonekings planned to rebuild and found some solace after retrieving Mike’s wedding ring from the ashes.
The 422-square-mile (1,093-sq. kilometre) blaze called the Thomas Fire crested a peak just north of Montecito, where evacuation orders remained in effect. Known for its star power, the enclave includes the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.
“Still praying for our little town,” Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.
A portion of the city of Santa Barbara was also evacuated as a thick plume of smoke blew through city streets. At the city’s zoo, workers put some animals into crates and kennels to ready them for possible evacuation.
While crews on the fire lines got a break from slightly calmer winds, much of the rest of Southern California was buffeted by powerful gusts that once again increased the wildfire risk across the region. The National Weather Service forecast red flag conditions for extreme fire danger through Sunday evening for Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Trees came down after wind gusts topped 70 mph (113 kph) in mountain areas and 50 mph (80 kph) along the coast.
Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that destroyed entire neighbourhoods to the legions of people attacking it. About 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states battled the third largest wildfire in state history, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters.
The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $117 million.
Christopher Weber, The Associated Press