SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (CBSLA/AP) — A respite from powerful winds allowed firefighters to reach 55 percent containment of the enormous Thomas Fire burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, but officials warned that potentially dangerous gusts would return.
Crews taking advantage of calm conditions were performing a controlled burn Tuesday to remove swaths of dry brush along the fire's northern edge.
"We're going to take a lot of that fuel out of there," fire Capt. Rick Crawford said. "That way when the winds come back there'll be nothing left to burn."
Residents near the city of Ojai could see new smoke from the controlled burn, Crawford said.
Hot, gusty winds that caused a huge flare-up and forced more evacuations last weekend are expected to whip up again Wednesday.
Thomas Fire: Closures And Evacuations
"While the weather conditions are improving with an increase in humidity recovery, and decrease in wind speeds, fuels remain critically dry," Cal Fire wrote Tuesday.
Mandatory evacuation orders were still in affect around Montecito, and northwest into the Santa Barbara suburbs of Riviera, Mission Canyon and Foothill.
Firefighters Tuesday continued fire suppression efforts in Montecito. Meanwhile, the northeast flank of the fire continued to spread into Sespe Wilderness towards the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, CAL Fire said.
Latest Coverage: The Southern California Wildfires
The fire – which broke out Dec. 4 in Santa Paula -- has grown to 271,750 acres as of late Tuesday.
At least 1,024 structures have been destroyed – including 755 homes -- and 250 more have been damaged. About 18,000 homes remain threatened. More than 104,000 people have been evacuated at some point.
The fire is about 1,200 acres smaller than the state's largest fire ever measured. That blaze, the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego, killed 15 people.
State fire officials say it is slightly larger than the 2012 Rush fire in Lassen County and now second-largest in state history since accurate records were kept starting in 1932.
Officials estimate that the Thomas Fire will grow to become the biggest in California history before full containment, which is expected by Jan. 7.
Some evacuations were lifted Monday, and Crawford said more residents are being allowed to return Tuesday.
However he cautioned that hillside homes are still threatened near the city of Santa Barbara, where firefighters mounted an aggressive air attack on stubborn flames.
Firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, died Dec. 14 of burns and smoke inhalation while battling the flames. The blaze is also blamed for the Dec. 6 death of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car crash on an evacuation route.
More than 8,400 firefighters from nearly a dozen states are battling the blaze.
The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $130 million.
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