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Residents flee as California wildfire approaching Santa Barbara, Montecito

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Thomas wildfire grows to be the third largest in the history of California

Will Carr reports

Strong winds drove of one of the largest wildfires in California’s history in the direction of Santa Barbara and the nearby wealthy enclave of Montecito on Saturday, asking the residents to flee as authorities issued new evacuation orders.

The 404-square-mile Thomas Brand was fast to the west and crested Montecito Peak, just north of the Montecito. Known to the star power of the enclave, the homes of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.

Still praying for our little city. Wind picked up this morning, creating a perfect storm of bad for the firefighters. #peacebestill ??

— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) December 16, 2017

“It is right above the homes,” fire spokesman Judas Olivas told the Associated Press.

Mandatory evacuations around Montecito and neighboring Summerland came as the wind had eased a day earlier roared back at about 30 km / h with gusts to about 60 km / h. The fire department was the yellow fire engines with hoses unspooled, ready for the protection of the historic San Ysidro Ranch as heavy smoke rose from the hills on the coast, which stand out against the blue sky.

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A section of Santa Barbara was also under mandatory evacuation. The zoo was under voluntary evacuation, and the employees started putting a number of animals in crates and kennels as a precaution.

In the centre of Santa Barbara, Maya Schoop-Rutten, owner of Chocolate Maya, said that she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear after a strong wind blew by.

“Incredible,” she said. “There was a huge mushroom of smoke that happened in just a matter of a few minutes.”

Restaurants and small shops on the normally busy State Street were closed, they have been on and off for more than 10 days, as the changing wind pushed the flames and the smoke to and fro.

“It is a ghost town. Everything is closed,” Schoop-Rutten said. “It is very, very creepy.”

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The northbound lanes of U.S. Highway 101, coming from the coast of Los Angeles, were closed for a couple of hours south of Santa Barbara, with cars stopped on the highway.

Pierre Henry, owner of the Bree’osh Bakery in Montecito, said he got a text to evacuate Saturday morning as the fire approached homes. He estimated the fire was about a mile away.

“The worst thing was the smoke,” Henry said. “You couldn’t breathe and it was even worse when the wind started. The ashes and the dust of the street were in the air. It was very, very frightening.”

The city, according to Henry, was devoid of people, except for the firefighters and as many as 50 fire trucks.

“We have left everything,” Henry said. “There is no one in Montecito. Just firefighters.”

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The morning passed with no homes destroyed or damaged as firefighters dealt with “extreme and unexpected” behaviour in case of fire, Olivas said.

Schoop-Rutten said that the fire is taking an economic toll, even if it’s not to invade the city.

“It is tragic for businesses in this time of the year because this is when we make money,” she said. “Imagine, all restaurants, all the Christmas parties are cancelled. People lost a ton of revenue in the past few days.”

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

If the northern “sundowner” winds drove the fire south and west, firefighters were left to hope for them to quiet back down.

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“When the sundowners surface in the area and the fire starts to walk to the slopes, you’re not going to stop,” Mark Brown of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told a news conference. “And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations.”

For the 13th straight day, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning of extreme fire danger because of hot, dry, windy conditions.

The fire is now the third largest in the history of California. 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 by the Ventura County medical examiner’s office. Details of his death were not released.

Since the fire began on Dec. 4, approximately 95,000 people have placed under a mandatory evacuation. The evacuation zone near Santa Barbara on Saturday, 17 kilometres long and five kilometres wide and the new extension consisted of approximately 3,300 employees.

The Santa Barbara Zoo, which is near the mandatory evacuation zone, announced it was putting a number of animals in crates to prepare for possible evacuation. The zoo has 150 different species of animals, including a pair of Amur leopards, a critically endangered species. Employees, tight, vultures, California condors and a number of smaller animals in crates and kennels in case the fire approached.

“Everything is in order now. The wind has shifted in our favour,” spokesman of the Dean, Noble said. “But we just don’t want to get caught by something unexpected.”

Other zoos are ready for the evacuated animals, ” he said. The Fresno zoo has an incubator available for a baby giant anteater, and the San Diego zoo is willing to accept the Amur leopards and other cats, Noble said.

Everything about the brand is huge, from the massive scale of the destruction that cremated all the way for the legions to fall: over 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, helped by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters.

The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs more than $100 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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