The deadly wildfire that has scorched the U.S. state of California for nearly two weeks still raged on Saturday and threatened a wealthy community northwest of Los Angeles, prompting new evacuations in Santa Barbara County.
The so-called Thomas Fire, now ranked the third largest wildfire in modern history of California, was moving rapidly and now took aim at the hills above Montecito, known for its luxury resorts and mansions of celebrities.
Taking advantage of a lull in winds in last Wednesday to Friday, firefighters cleared contained areas along the westernmost edge of the giant blaze to stop the wildfire from approaching communities at foothills, Tony Pighetti, a captain of the Santa Barbara fire department, told Xinhua.
However, fueled by a new blast of Santa Ana winds which were predicted to hit the area through Sunday with gusts of 65 mph (110 kph), the Thomas Fire moved northward fast Saturday morning, with flame seen on top of hill over the town.
Kelly Hoover, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's spokeswoman, said authorities dispatched hundreds of crews to Montecito, checking the communities door to door and ordering residents to leave the evacuation zone.
She warned that the situation was really dangerous for their lives since the Santa Ana winds mixed with the Sundowner, a northerly offshore wind in Santa Barbara.
"When the sundowners surface in that area and the fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it," Mark Brown, an operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told reporters at a news briefing on Saturday morning.
"And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations," he added.
A sundowner is particularly dangerous during wildfire season because the air heats and dries as it descends from the mountains to the sea.
Pictures posted on Twitter pages showed that platoons of fire trucks awaited orders with their engines running in parking lots of public schools, churches and other designated safety zones Saturday morning.
Santa Barbara branch of Cal Fire tweeted a video at noon, showing fire engines from Portland of the state of Oregon provided structure protection at the historic San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, a luxury resorts community dated from 1893.
Montecito, a small oceanside city located between the Coastal Mountains and the Pacific seashore with about 20,000 residents, were empty since from last week the fire scorched the southern Ventura County.
The Santa Ana winds are strong, extremely dry down-slope winds that originate inland and affect coastal Southern California in fall and winter. They are known as "devil winds" for fanning regional wildfires.
Fanned by the unusual Santa Ana this winter, the Thomas Fire till Saturday morning has scorched about 259,000 acres and 700 homes in Southern California since it ignited on Dec. 4.