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Winds fuel California wildfire, state's 3rd-largest on record

Firefighters provide structure protection at the historic San Ysidro Ranch as flames from the Thomas Fire, now the third-largest on record, rage in the distance in Montecito, California, U.S., December 16, 2017. Courtesy Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

(reuters_tickers)

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A raging California wildfire on Saturday became the state's third-largest on record, with more devastation possible from a resurgence of the harsh winds that have fuelled the deadly blaze since the beginning of the month.

The so-called Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including about 750 homes, in Southern California coastal communities since erupting on Dec. 4, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement. The cause of the blaze is not yet known.

Authorities described the current conditions, including returning winds and extremely low humidity, as "critical fire weather." Coastal Santa Barbara and more sparsely populated inland areas were of special concern, they said.

Mandatory evacuations were in place in several Santa Barbara County communities, including Carpinteria and Montecito, and parts of Ventura County. An evacuation order for the city of Ventura, which was hit hard in the first days of the fire, was lifted on Saturday morning.

The cost of fighting the blaze has already reached $104 million, with more than 8,000 firefighters working around the clock, and helicopters and airplanes dropping retardant on the flames.

"Each fire has a unique circumstance," Cal Fire spokesman Gabe Lauderdale said on Saturday. "This one has impacted a lot of communities. The sheer size of the fire is what's unique about it."

For California, this year has been unprecedented in terms of structures lost and the size of the wildfires, Lauderdale said. Five of 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 100 miles (161 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, reached 259,000 acres (104,800 hectares) early on Saturday. That surpassed the 257,314 acres (104,131 hectares) that California's Rim Fire, which had been the state's third-largest on record, destroyed in 2013, authorities said.

The Thomas Fire is only 40 percent contained, and it threatens 18,000 structures, officials said, including some in the wealthy enclave of Montecito just outside the city of Santa Barbara. The blaze is chewing up tall grass and bone-dry brush as it spreads along the scenic Pacific Coast.

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 remain strong through Saturday evening in the Santa Barbara County mountains, the National Weather Service warned. Gusts of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) were expected.

From Saturday night through Sunday evening, the winds could lash neighbouring Ventura County, the Weather Service said.

Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson, 32, died on Thursday while battling the flames near the Ventura County community of Fillmore. Fire officials said Iverson, the blaze's first fatality, left behind a pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter.

"Even though many of us didn't work with him personally, we lost a brother," Lauderdale said.

The Thomas Fire was one of several major blazes that broke out in Southern California this month, although the others have been contained.

The fires forced many schools to close for days, shut roads and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. They were also responsible for poor air quality throughout Southern California.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty, Mary Milliken and Lisa Von Ahn)

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