California winds expected to fuel blaze in state's third-largest wildfire

Dec 17 (Reuters) - Strong winds that have powered the third-largest wildfire in California's history were expected on Sunday to further fuel a blaze that has burned 267,500 acres.

Nearly 8,500 firefighters are battling the so-called Thomas Fire in Southern California, which began Dec. 4 and has destroyed more than 1,000 structures and threatened 18,000 more, including homes in the wealthy town of Montecito just outside the coastal city of Santa Barbara.

While the winds were expected to ease on Sunday near Santa Barbara, northeast wind gusts up to 55 mph were forecast through Sunday for parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, National Weather Service forecasters said.

The blaze, centered less than 100 miles (160 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, has forced evacuations that turned neighborhoods into ghost towns and filled the air with smoke.

RELATED: A look at the destruction in Ventura County

24 PHOTOS
Wildfire in Ventura County, California
See Gallery
Wildfire in Ventura County, California
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: Smoke blows out of the burning palm trees as brush fire threaten homes on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: Firefighters work to control the western side of Grant Park as brushfire engulf most of the vegetation on the hill, on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A man waters his home as firefighters battle a wildfire as it burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A firefighter battles a wildfire as it burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman evacuates her home as a wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter looks at a house burnt to the ground during the Thomas wildfire in Ventura, California on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter battles a wildfire as it burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
Embers blow from burned trees as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A home burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises into the night sky as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 4, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A burned truck smolders on a country road at night as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Downtown is darkened by a power outage with smoke rising in the distance as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres in Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Embers blow from burned trees as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Property burns at night as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
The burned remains of crashed cars are seen at night on a country road as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A structure burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
The burned remains of crashed cars are seen at night on a country road as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Property burns at night as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A home burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Embers blow from a tree shortly before it fell down near burned cars as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A home burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A fire crew passes a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A firefighter inspects a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Embers blow from burned trees as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The fire is now 40 percent contained despite hot Santa Ana winds that have powered its expansion, at times sending embers far ahead of its main flank.

Firefighters were employing more than 970 fire engines and 34 helicopters to battle the blaze.

"It is a beast," Santa Barbara County Fire Department Division Chief Martin Johnson told a news conference on Saturday. "But we will kill it." Five of 20 most destructive fires in recorded history ravaged the state in 2017, according to Cal Fire.

The Thomas fire, the seventh-most destructive in state history, forced many schools to close for days, shut roads and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. It was also responsible for poor air quality throughout Southern California.

On Saturday, evacuation orders were issued for parts of Santa Barbara County as high winds whipped the fire through bone-dry terrain.

SEE ALSO: Firefighter killed battling massive California blaze

In Montecito on Saturday, smoke billowing from nearby canyons and pushed by the high winds choked the air, hindering aircraft from dropping flame retardant, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services said. An evacuation order for the city of Ventura was lifted on Saturday morning.

Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson, 32, died on Thursday while battling the flames near the Ventura County community of Fillmore. The blaze's first fatality, he died of smoke inhalation and burns, the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office said. (Reporting by Chris Kenning; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

RELATED: Aerial images of the California wildfire

14 PHOTOS
Aerial images of Ventura County, California wildfire
See Gallery
Aerial images of Ventura County, California wildfire
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: View of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Homes burned to the ground in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is fully involved in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is fully involved in fire and others destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is fully involved in fire and others destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: View of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SYLMAR, CA, DECEMBER 5: Flames encroach on structures in the hills above Sylmar fire from helicopter in Los Angeles County, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2017. (Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MALIBU, CA - FEBRUARY 25: LA County Fire helicopters make water drops to halt forward progress of the10 acre brush fire called the Mulholland Fire in the western Malibu hills near the Ventura County line Thursday morning as hand crews work to cut a control line around the blaze. A fire crew inmate suffered major injuries from fallng rock while battling the fire and was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MALIBU, CA - FEBRUARY 25: LA County Fire helicopters make water drops to halt forward progress of the10 acre brush fire called the Mulholland Fire in the western Malibu hills near the Ventura County line Thursday morning as hand crews work to cut a control line around the blaze. A fire crew inmate suffered major injuries from fallng rock while battling the fire and was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.