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Calif. Firefighters Brace for 2nd Week 12/11 06:14

   LOS ANGELES (AP) -- As Southern California enters its second week engulfed 
in flames, fire officials anticipate more growth and danger due to continued 
strong wind gusts, no rain and decades-old dry vegetation.

   A powerful flare-up on the western edge of the largest and most destructive 
wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames ripped down 
hillsides toward coastal towns northwest of Los Angeles. New evacuations were 
ordered as the fire sent up an enormous plume near Montecito and Carpinteria, 
seaside areas in Santa Barbara County.

   "The winds are kind of squirrely right now," said county fire spokesman Mike 
Eliason. "Some places the smoke is going straight up in the air, and others 
it's blowing sideways. Depends on what canyon we're in."

   Southern California's gusty Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of 
the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland toward the 
Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

   Gusts of up to 40 mph (64 kph) are expected through Monday, according to the 
National Weather Service.

   Containment increased Sunday on other major blazes in Los Angeles, Riverside 
and San Diego counties. Resources from those fires were diverted to the Santa 
Barbara foothills to combat the 270-square-mile (699-sq. kilometer) fire that 
started Dec. 4 in neighboring Ventura County.

   As of late Sunday, the Thomas Fire had destroyed 790 structures and damaged 
191.

   Fires are not typical in Southern California this time of year but can break 
out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. 
Though the state emerged this spring from a yearslong drought, hardly any 
measurable rain has fallen in the region over the past six months.

   "This is the new normal," Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown warned Saturday after 
surveying damage from the deadly Ventura fire. The governor and experts said 
climate change is making wildfires a year-round threat.

   High fire risk is expected to last into January.

   The air thick with acrid smoke, even residents of areas not under evacuation 
orders took the opportunity to leave, fearing another shutdown of U.S. 101, a 
key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week. Officials handed 
out masks to residents who stayed behind in Montecito, the wealthy hillside 
enclave that's home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Rob 
Lowe.

   "Our house is under threat of being burned," Ellen DeGeneres tweeted at 
midday Sunday. "We just had to evacuate our pets. I'm praying for everyone in 
our community and thankful to all the incredible firefighters."

   Ojai experienced hazardous levels of smoke at times and officials warned of 
unhealthy air for large swaths of the region. The South Coast Air Quality 
Management District urged residents to stay indoors if possible and avoid 
vigorous outdoor activities.

   In San Diego, which is 130 miles (209 kilometers) to the south, the Lilac 
Fire was 75 percent contained. The flames erupted suddenly Thursday in the 
Fallbrook area, known for its avocado groves and horse stables in the rolling 
hills.

   The fire swept through the San Luis Rey Downs training center, where it 
killed more than 40 elite thoroughbred race horses, and destroyed more than 100 
homes --- most of them in a retirement community. Three people were burned 
trying to escape the fire that continued to smolder Sunday.

   Despite the size and number of wildfires burning in the region, there has 
only been one confirmed death: A 70-year-old woman, who crashed her car on an 
evacuation route, is attributed to the fire in Santa Paula, a small city where 
the Thomas Fire began.

   Most of last week's fires were in places that burned in the past, including 
one in the ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air that burned six homes and 
another in the city's rugged foothills above the community of Sylmar and in 
Santa Paula.


(KA)

 
 
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