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While Risk Diminishes, Thomas Fire Nears State Record

VENTURA, Calif. (CBSLA/AP) — The worst appears to be over for the massive Thomas Fire that plagued a wide swath of the Santa Barbara and Ventura counties for 2½ weeks.

The Thomas Fire could very well still grow to become the biggest wildfire in California history, but it would do so as a gentle giant, not a raging beast.

The blaze had burned 272,800 acres and was 65 percent contained as of Friday morning, making it the second-largest in California's history. It was within 500 acres of overtaking the size of the record holder, the 2003 Cedar fire that struck San Diego County in 2003 and killed 15 people.

The last mandatory evacuation orders for the fire were called off by Thursday, and residents from Montecito north to the Santa Barbara neighborhoods of Eucalyptus Hill, Riviera, Mission Canyon and Foothill could finally return to their homes. At its peak, the fire drove about 100,000 people from their homes.

Only a remote wilderness valley remained under a voluntary evacuation warning.

The fire, which sparked Dec. 4 in Santa Paula, has destroyed at least 1,063 structures – including 755 homes — and damaged 280 more.

Firefighting costs have now hit $174 million and counting.

Latest Coverage: The Southern California Wildfires

Authorities said the fire is moving slowly in wilderness on its north flank but there was minimal activity elsewhere.

The passage of a cold front through the area late in the week produced strong winds in the Montecito area but caused no remarkable fire behavior, officials said. Use of controlled burns to clear brush were temporarily hampered by a spike in humidity and a light frosting of snow dusted the tops of some ridges.

Days of fierce, often erratic gusts combined with extremely dry weather pushed the blaze with incredible speed as it moved through Ventura County's agricultural Santa Clara Valley, into the city of Ventura and then moved northwestward, threatening the coastal communities of Santa Barbara County.

The fire is responsible for two deaths. San Diego CAL Fire engineer 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.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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