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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Californians flee as wildfire closes in on wealthy enclave

High winds hamper efforts to contain a blaze that is now third biggest in the US state's history

The so-called Thomas Fire has become the third-largest in California history. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
The so-called Thomas Fire has become the third-largest in California history. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

Residents piled into cars and fled on Saturday, turning downtown Santa Barbara into a ghost town as surging winds drove one of the biggest fires in California's history toward the city and the nearby wealthy enclave of Montecito.

The mandatory evacuations around Montecito and neighboring Summerland came as winds that had eased a day earlier roared back.

Firefighters sprayed water onto hot spots as heavy smoke rose from the coastal hills, blotting out the blue skies.

A portion of Santa Barbara was under mandatory evacuation. At the city's zoo, workers began putting some animals into crates and kennels, to ready them for possible evacuation.

Restaurants and small stores on normally bustling State Street in Santa Barbara were shuttered.

The Thomas Fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.

“It is right above the homes," fire spokesman Jude Olivas said.

Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.

"Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters," Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.

Pierre Henry, owner of a bakery in Montecito, said he got a text to evacuate Saturday morning as the fire approached homes.

"The worst was the smoke," Henry said. "You couldn't breathe at all and it became worse when the wind started. All the ashes and the dust on the street were in the air. It was very, very frightening."

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There was a spot of good news down the coast. Emergency officials announced that the same fire that was burning about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Montecito was 40 percent contained. Evacuation orders for the city of Ventura were lifted.

The fire is now the third-largest in California history. It has burned more than 700 homes and killed a firefighter. Cory Iverson, 32, died Thursday from burns and smoke inhalation, according to autopsy results announced Saturday.

Since the fire began on Dec. 4, about 95,000 people have been placed under mandatory evacuation. About 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states have been fighting the fire aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters.

The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $100 million.