VENTURA, Calif., Dec 17 (Reuters) - Calming winds on Sunday helped slow the spread of a California wildfire that already ranks as the third largest in state history, having scorched 269,000 acres (109,000 hectares) along the scenic Pacific Coast north of Los Angeles.
Officials said more than 8,500 firefighters were battling the so-called Thomas Fire in Southern California, which began on Dec. 4. It has destroyed more than 1,000 structures and threatened 18,000 others, including homes in the wealthy town of Montecito just outside the coastal city of Santa Barbara.
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.
Communities near Santa Barbara saw a break from the gusting winds that had stoked the fire and helped it spread, opening a window for authorities to contain the disaster during the next two days.
"We want to make sure we get a hold of this thing before Wednesday," said Captain Rick Crawford, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.
Strong winds persisted on Sunday in Ventura County, which remained under a red flag warning. Crawford said the threat level was expected to drop later in the day.
The fire is now 40 percent contained. Firefighters were employing more than 970 fire engines and 34 helicopters to battle the blaze.
Larry Dennis, 60, sought refuge at a shelter in the city of Ventura on Sunday after the blaze inundated the coastal region with smoke and turned nearby hillsides red.
The most devastating images from California's wildfires
The most devastating images from California's wildfires
Thomas wildfire burns above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon in this social media photo by Santa Barbara County Fire Department in Montecito, California, U.S. December 12, 2017. Courtesy Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Fire fighters attack the Thomas Fire?s north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai , California, U.S., December 9, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A firefighter is working on extinguishing the Lilac Fire, a fast moving wildfire, in Bonsall, California, U.S., December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Firefighters work at the top of a hill as the Lilac Fire burns through Bonsall, California, U.S., December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Firefighters battle to save one of many homes burning in an early-morning Creek Fire that broke out in the Kagel Canyon area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, in Sylmar, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Fire engulfs horse stables after an early-morning Creek Fire that broke out in the Kagel Canyon area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, in Sylmar, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop on the Lilac Fire, a fast moving wildfire in Bonsall, California, U.S., December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A horse which was left behind after an early-morning Creek Fire that broke out in the Kagel Canyon area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, is seen in Sylmar, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
Burned up trees glow red in the dark after an early-morning Creek Fire that broke out in the Kagel Canyon area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, in Sylmar, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
Firefighters battle flames from a Santa Ana wind-driven brush fire called the Thomas Fire in Santa Paula, California, December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
Area residents walk through a neighborhood destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
An aerial shows damage caused by wildfires in Santa Rosa, California, U.S October 11, 2017. Picture taken October 11, 2017. REUTERS/DroneBase
A wildfire is shown from the air near Atlas Road during an operation to rescue people trapped by wildfire in Napa, California, U.S., October 9, 2017. Photo taken October 9, 2017. Courtesy California Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
The Canyon Fire burns hillsides in Corona, California, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot
The Canyon Fire burns hillsides above houses in Corona, California, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot
Firefighters watch a helicopter make a water drop on a wildfire burning behind the Getty Center in Mandeville Canyon in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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"I've seen people who have lost everything," he said.
Charlotte Garcia, 25, had been at the shelter for almost a week after the fire burned down her house in Ojai, about 30 miles (48 km) north of Ventura. She lamented that firefighters had not done more to stop the destruction.
"The house next door to us got burnt down too, because they were too busy on the hill," she said.
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.
Five of the 20 most destructive fires in recorded history have 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.