Winds, dry conditions to hamper efforts to tame California wildfire

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By Ben Gruber

CARPINTERIA, Calif. (Reuters) – Powerful gusts of wind and bone dry conditions will remain overriding concerns for Californian firefighters on Wednesday as they seek to tame a huge blaze that has destroyed hundreds of homes.

The Thomas Fire has travelled 27 miles (43 km) since it began on Dec. 4 to become the fifth-largest wildfire in state history. It has charred more than 368 square miles (953 square km) of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, an area larger than New York City.

A break in the hot, dry winds on Tuesday sapped the fire’s forward momentum and allowed crews to prevent further damage to homes.

But adverse weather will “promote significant fire growth (and) … hamper control efforts” on Wednesday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in an evening advisory.

The fire, which was 25 percent contained, will continue to threaten the coastal communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito as powerful Santa Ana wind gusts and humidity of less than 10 percent will remain in the forecast until Friday, Cal Fire and the National Weather Service said.

Some of the 7,800 firefighters deployed against the blaze on Tuesday took advantage of the better weather to set controlled burns in a canyon near Carpinteria to deprive the flames of fuel, Cal Fire Captain Steve Concialdi.

In Washington, where members of the House of Representatives met Vice President Mike Pence to discuss the crisis, Representative Julia Brownley said all resources had arrived to fight the blaze, which could take another week to contain. Her district includes Ventura.

The Thomas Fire has so far destroyed 701 homes and displaced more than 94,000 people. Efforts to combat the flames have cost more than $55 million.

Many public schools in Santa Barbara and school districts nearby have cancelled classes this week and will not reopen until the annual winter break is completed in January.

Some of other fires burning over the past week in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been largely brought under control.

The Los Angeles Fire Department said on Tuesday that investigators had determined that the Skirball Fire, which destroyed six homes in the city’s Bel-Air community, was started by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment underneath a freeway.

(Additonal reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by John Stonestreet)

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