Winston-Salem Journal: Ap

Dec 11, 11:27 AM EST

Firefighters protect coastal California towns as blaze rages



LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Firefighters kept a wall of flames from descending mountains into coastal neighborhoods after a huge and destructive Southern California wildfire exploded in size, becoming the fifth largest in state history.

Tens of thousands remained under evacuation orders Monday as the fire churned west through foothill areas of Carpinteria and Montecito, seaside Santa Barbara County towns about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. Much of the fire's rapid new growth occurred on the eastern and northern fronts into unoccupied areas of Los Padres National Forest, where the state's fourth largest fire burned a decade ago.

The blaze, which had already destroyed more than 750 buildings, gutted six more in Carpinteria on Sunday, officials said. It's just 15 percent contained after charring nearly 360 square miles (930 square kilometers) of dry brush and timber.

"We're still anxious. I'm not frightened yet," Carpinteria resident Roberta Lehtinen told KABC-TV. "I don't think it's going to come roaring down unless the winds kick up."

Forecasters predicted that dry winds that fanned several fires across the region for a week would begin to lose their power Monday. Light gusts were pushing onshore, driving the flames back up hillsides and away from communities, Santa Barbara County Fire spokesman Mike Eliason said. But the possibility of "unpredictable" gusts would keep firefighters on edge for days, he said.

Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

With the air thick with acrid smoke, even residents of areas not under evacuation orders took the opportunity to leave, fearing another shutdown of U.S. 101, a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week. Officials handed out masks to residents who stayed behind in Montecito, the wealthy hillside enclave that's home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Drew Barrymore.

Smoke shrouded Rob Lowe's home and the actor wore a mask as he livestreamed his family leaving on Sunday.

"Praying for the people in my area," he said on Instagram. "Hope everybody's getting out safe like we are, and thanks for the prayers and thoughts. And good luck to the firefighters, we need you!"

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that neighbors were helping each other and their animals get to safety.

"I'm sending lots of love and gratitude to the fire department and sheriffs. Thank you all," she wrote.

Meanwhile, containment increased on other major blazes in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties. Resources from those fires were diverted to the Santa Barbara foothills to combat the stubborn and enormous fire that started Dec. 4.

Fires are not typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Though the state emerged this spring from a yearslong drought, hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region over the past six months.

"This is the new normal," Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown warned Saturday after surveying damage from the deadly Ventura fire. Brown and experts said climate change is making wildfires a year-round threat.

High fire risk is expected to last into January.

The small mountain town of Ojai experienced hazardous levels of smoke at times, and officials warned of unhealthy air for large swaths of the region. The South Coast Air Quality Management District urged residents to stay indoors if possible and avoid vigorous outdoor activities.

Despite the size and number of wildfires burning in the region, there has only been one confirmed death: The death of a 70-year-old woman, who crashed her car on an evacuation route, is attributed to the fire in Santa Paula, a small city where the Thomas Fire began.

Most of last week's fires were in places that burned in the past, including one in the ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air that burned six homes and another in the city's rugged foothills above the community of Sylmar and in Santa Paula.

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