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California winds fuel state’s third-largest wildfire, may get worse

CALIFORNIA Strong winds that have powered the third-largest wildfire in California's history were expected to further fuel a blaze that has burned 108,250 ha.

Nearly 8,500 firefighters are battling the so-called Thomas Fire in Southern California, which began on 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 yesterday near Santa Barbara, north-east wind gusts up to 88kmh were forecast through yesterday for parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, National Weather Service forecasters said.

The blaze, centred less than 160km north-west of downtown Los Angeles, has forced evacuations that turned neighbourhoods into ghost towns and filled the air with smoke.

The fire is now 40 per cent 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 this year, 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. - REUTERS

WORLD