California fires: largest blaze threatens Santa Barbara and prompts evacuation

The largest California wildfire advanced on coastal towns near Santa Barbara on Sunday, stoked by gusty winds and dry conditions that have fueled destructive blazes across the south of the state.

Authorities ordered residents in parts of Carpinteria and Montecito to evacuate early on Sunday as the Thomas fire edged closer to the city of Santa Barbara, about 100 miles west of Los Angeles. The blaze had already blackened 155,000 acres and consumed hundreds of structures.

Half a dozen fires have raged across California since early this week. Governor Jerry Brown issued emergency proclamations for Santa Barbara, San Diego, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, freeing up additional resources to fight the infernos.

Officials said smoke from the fires was causing unhealthy air for large parts of southern California. The flare-up on Sunday in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties sent up a new plume that added to heavy smoke already choking areas around the cities of Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Paula.

The Ventura County Air Pollution Control District said air quality was especially bad in the Ojai Valley, where it has at times reached hazardous levels. To the south-east, regulators warned on Saturday of unhealthy air across parts of greater Los Angeles. The South Coast Air Quality Management District urged residents to avoid vigorous outdoor activities.

Brown visited Ventura County on Saturday and said deadly and destructive wildfires in winter were “the new normal”.

At a news conference, the governor said drought and climate change meant California faces a “new reality” where lives and property are continually threatened by fire, at a cost of billions of dollars. He added that there was a good chance of seeing “firefighting at Christmas” this year.

It will take “heroic” efforts in the US and abroad, Brown said, to stem climate change. The governor, who strongly criticised Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal in an interview with CBS due to be broadcast on Sunday evening, urged US lawmakers to pay more attention to dealing with natural disasters such as fires, floods and earthquakes.

This week, Trump issued a federal proclamation that enabled agencies to coordinate relief efforts in southern California.

At least one home in Carpinteria burned down on Sunday, the Santa Barbara County fire department said. The fire was only 15% contained as of Sunday morning, according to the California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire).

Top wind speeds were forecast to increase to 55mph on Sunday from 40mph on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Such gusts, coupled with the rugged mountain terrain above Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, have hampered firefighting efforts, authorities said.

The fires have forced the evacuation of some 200,000 people and destroyed nearly 800 structures. A 70-year-old woman died on Wednesday in a car accident as she attempted to flee the flames in Ventura County.

The Thomas fire, the largest blaze, had left nearly 90,000 customers without power as of early Sunday morning, Southern California Edison said on its website.

The 8,5000 firefighters battling the fires that have burned over the past week gained some ground on Saturday. Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 90% contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball fire in Los Angeles was 75% contained. North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre Lilac fire was 60% contained.

A brush fire broke out on Saturday night in the city of Monrovia in Los Angeles County, prompting temporary evacuations, the US Forest Service said on Twitter. A group of Boy Scouts camping in the area were among those evacuated, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Crews knocked down the three-acre blaze and no structures were reported damaged, the city of Monrovia said on its website.

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