A raging California wildfire powered by fierce winds has grown into the third-largest in the state’s history, as forced evacuations turned neighbourhoods into ghost towns and ash fell in some areas like heavy snow.
High winds and dry conditions were expected to remain through the weekend to power the so-called Thomas Fire in Southern California.
It has destroyed more than 1,000 structures and threatened 18,000 more since erupting on December 4.
Nearly 8,500 personnel using nearly 1,000 engines and 32 helicopters were battling the blaze, which was 40 per cent contained on Saturday evening (local time).
Santa Barbara County fire chief Martin Johnson told a news conference crews would eventually contain the fire.
“It is a beast … but we will kill it,” he said.
A new evacuation order was issued for parts of Santa Barbara County on Saturday as high winds whipped the fire through bone-dry terrain.
In Montecito, smoke billowing from nearby canyons and pushed by the high winds choked the air, hindering aircraft from dropping flame retardant, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said.
The wildfire 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.
An evacuation order for the city of Ventura, which was hit hard in the first days of the fire, was lifted on Saturday morning.
“Our backyard, it’s like a rain of ash. I don’t even want to step back there,” said Janet Harrington, 56, an artist and writer who grew up and lives in Ventura.
Her son Ryan said: “I can count 10 people who lost their homes. My best friend from high school, his mum’s house burned down.”
The total cost of fighting the fire had come to more than $US110 million ($144 million) by Saturday evening, as flames blazing over steep hills lit up the night skies.
A year of devastating wildfires
The 13 days of shifting winds and evacuations have taken their toll on a weary population.
Paul Pineda, who lives in Fillmore, about 90 kilometres north-west of Los Angeles and on the eastern flank of the fire, said he will flee if the blaze gets too close.
“It’s pretty crazy. Went to sleep last night about midnight and then woke up to the roar of this fire coming through about 3:00am,” Mr Pineda said.
This year has been unprecedented for California in terms of structures lost and the size of the wildfires, officials said.
Five of the 20 most destructive fires in recorded history ravaged the state in 2017, according to Cal Fire.
The vast landscape charred by the blaze, centred fewer than 160 kilometres north-west of downtown Los Angeles, reached 108,253 hectares late on Saturday.
The hot Santa Ana winds have propelled the fire’s expansion, at times sending embers far ahead of its main flank. They were forecast to gust at up to 80 kilometres per hour on Sunday with critical fire conditions remaining through Monday, National Weather Service forecasters said.
Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson died on Thursday while battling the flames near the Ventura County community of Fillmore.
Fire officials said Mr Iverson, the blaze’s first fatality, left behind a pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter. He died of smoke inhalation and burns, the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office said.