California wildfire crews gain edge as last evacuation orders lifted
Crews battling to subdue the remnants of a sprawling Southern California wildfire are gaining ground after a resurgence of winds proved weaker than expected, allowing officials to lift all remaining evacuation orders and warnings.
- Firefighting personnel have been scaled down from 8,500 to 4,700
- Cost of fighting the blaze has topped $167 million
- 1,000 homes were destroyed and more than 100,000 evacuated
The so-called Thomas fire, California's second-largest on record, has charred 110,000 hectares of coastal mountains, foothills and canyons across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties north-west of Los Angeles, fire officials said.
The fire's spread was largely halted this week as crews extended safety buffer lines around most of its perimeter, hacking away thick bush before it could ignite and torching some vegetation in controlled-burning operations.
Containment of the fire grew to 65 per cent on Thursday, up from 60 per cent a day earlier.
Much of the progress was made during three days in which diminished winds, cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels allowed firefighters to go on the attack against a blaze that had kept them on the defensive for the better part of two weeks.
A new bout of strong winds had been forecast to accelerate to 80 kilometres per hour on Thursday morning, stoking extreme fire conditions again, but turned out to be less forceful than expected, authorities said.
"We didn't really see the winds that were predicted," said Brandon Vaccaro, a spokesman for the firefighting command.
Containment lines already carved around populated areas "held really well", he said.
More than 1,000 homes and other structures were destroyed and well over 100,000 people were forced to flee their dwellings at the height of the fire storm, but abandoned communities were gradually reopened to residents this week.
On Thursday, authorities cancelled the last evacuation notices still in effect for Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Only one fatality directly related to the fire has been reported, a firefighter who succumbed to burns and smoke inhalation in the line of duty last week.
As the fire threat waned, the number of personnel assigned to fight the blaze has been scaled back to about 4,700, down from 8,500 at the fire's peak.
In terms of burned landscape, the Thomas fire ranks a close second to California's largest wildfire on record, the 2003 Cedar blaze in San Diego County, which consumed almost 111,000 hectares) and killed 15 people.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has estimated the cost of fighting the blaze that erupted December 4 at more than $167 million.
The cause has not been determined.
The Thomas fire came two months after a spate of wind-driven blazes in Northern California's wine country incinerated several thousand homes and killed more than 40 people, ranking as the deadliest rash of wildfires, and one of the most destructive, in state history.
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