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Crews Brace for Return of Powerful Wind That Fueled Calif. Fire

Firefighters used three days of calm conditions to bulldoze containment lines before powerful wind gusts were expected to return

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    Crews Brace for Return of Powerful Wind That Fueled Calif. Fire
    Chris Carlson/AP
    Firefighters from Kern County, Calif., work to put out hot spots during a wildfire, Dec. 16, 2017, in Montecito, Calif.

    All evacuation orders related to the Thomas fire in Santa Barbara County were lifted Thursday, more than two weeks after the wildfire started in Ventura County and grew into one of the state's largest blazes on record.

    The announcement from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department came after many evacuated residents remained out of their homes for days, taking shelter from California's second-largest wildfire. 

    After a welcome lull in powerful winds that drove Southern California's massive wildfire, crews and homeowners braced for the return of potentially dangerous gusts that could revive the flames. Some residents were watching from afar at hotels and evacuation centers, while others are waiting in their homes and hoping for the best.

    Katy and Bob Zappala have stayed in their home in Santa Barbara, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, despite a mandatory evacuation order that's been in place since Saturday.

    "Our cars are packed, we have all our clothes and jewelry, so we're ready to leave at a moment's notice should we have to," Katy Zappala, 74, said Wednesday. "We're ready to leap in and leave, and we're just keeping a good eye on the sky."

    The Zappalas and their cat, Madeline, haven't left home since the evacuation order was issued because authorities wouldn't allow them back in. They're starting to run out of food and are hoping that if they make it through the next wave of winds, the ordeal will be over.

    "It's a critical day," Zappala said. "You're always nervous when the winds come up."

    Some 18,000 homes and other buildings remain threatened in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

    The Thomas Fire, which began Dec. 4, is responsible for two deaths, has destroyed at least 750 homes, and has burned about 425 square miles (1,100 square kilometers).

    The blaze scorched through 272,000 acres and was 60 percent contained. It is now the second-largest in California history. Officials said the new winds could cause it to grow into the state's biggest fire ever.

    Firefighters used three days of calm conditions to bulldoze containment lines and set controlled fires to clear dry brush ahead of winds expected to whip up late Wednesday.

    Forecasts called for winds of 30 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph by early evening.

    That would force fire crews to fall back to safe zones rather than risk being trapped by the surging flames.

    "When it's being pushed by 60-plus mph winds ... you're not getting in there and extinguishing the fire, you're just trying to get out of its way and clean up its aftermath," said Capt. David Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

    Days and days of such fierce, often erratic gusts combined with extremely dry weather have pushed the blaze with virtually unprecedented speed, blackening more ground in weeks than other fires consumed in a month or more.

    It would take an hour to drive from one end of the fire to the other by freeway, Zaniboni said.

    "It's burned through downtown Ventura, it burned through the foothills of Montecito ... and it's also burning in the back wilderness up in the mountains," he said. "It's done a little bit of everything. It's massive."

    "We're obviously not going to be able to put out every hotspot," Zaniboni said. "We worry about it blowing an ember, sparking a fire over the (containment) line and basically, doing it all over again."

    Brian Bromberg, 57, and his fiancee, Wendy Frank, were staying at their home in Upper Ojai on Wednesday despite several brushes with death the first week of the fire.

    Bromberg defended their 20-acre (8-hectare) property with buckets of water for hours as flames burned their neighbors' homes and embers began hitting theirs on Dec. 5. The couple could feel the heat from the flames as they fled the property with their four horses and later drove through a wall of fire as it jumped a major highway.

    "We're basically waiting and seeing," Bromberg said of Wednesday's forecast. "I can't believe these winds keep coming back. We thought it was over."

    Around his property, even though the flames went through more than two weeks ago, Bromberg said the ground was still smoking and smoldering.

    "It's scary," he said. "It's like it never ends."

    Those who remain evacuated are watching the blaze from afar, hoping their homes survive another possible onslaught.

    "My husband has the feeling, 'Why aren't they letting us back in?'" said 82-year-old Curry Sawyer, whose Christmas tree is up still waiting for her grandkids to decorate it after she and her husband Ray were forced to flee from their Santa Barbara home two weeks ago.

    "But they've got hot spots up there and if we get more Santa Ana winds, we're going to be back to square one," she said. "I'm not sure we're out of the woods."

    Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.