A powerful flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through old-growth brush in canyons and along hillsides toward coastal towns.
Firefighters continued to battle the wildfires Sunday as they raged across more than 180,000 acres and burned some 800 structures in California.
"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."
The department posted a photo of one residence engulfed in flames. It's unclear whether other structures burned. Thousands of homes and businesses in the county were without power.
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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."
California Gov. Jerry Brown said deadly and destructive wildfires in winter are "the new normal," a day before new evacuations were ordered in Santa Barbara County.
Brown on Saturday toured Ventura County neighborhoods ravaged by a weeklong wildfire that killed at least one person and destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings.
At a news conference, Brown said drought and climate change mean California faces a "new reality" where lives and property are continually threatened by fire, at a cost of billions of dollars.
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He added that gusty winds and low humidity are continuing to create conditions for the fires to continue to burn.
"We're about ready to have firefighting at Christmas," Brown said. "This is very odd and unusual."
The Thomas fire, the largest of the wildfires, had burned 173,000 acres by Sunday, with just 15 percent contained. Authorities estimate 600 homes have been destroyed.
New evacuations were ordered in Santa Barbara County, affecting those who lived in areas north of Highway 192, east of Buena Vista Drive — including the 900 block of Park Lane — and all the way to the Santa Barbara County line. Evacuations were also in effect from Buena Vista Drive to Toro Canyon Road from Highway 192 north to Camino Cielo Road.
All mandatory evacuations in the city of Ventura and the county portion of Ventura Avenue have been lifted, except for neighborhoods north of Poli Street and Foothill Road.
San Diego's Lilac fire was 60 percent contained by Sunday, after scorching through 4,100 acres.
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Brown said it will take "heroic" efforts in the U.S. and abroad to stem climate change and urged U.S. lawmakers to pay more attention to dealing with natural disasters such as fires, floods and earthquakes.
The dry, hot, windy conditions across the region that have fueled what would be extreme for any season, but are especially stunning just two weeks from winter.
One death has been connected to the wildfires so far. Virginia Pesola, 70, was killed in a car crash along an evacuation route Wednesday night. The cause of death announced Friday was blunt force trauma with terminal smoke inhalation and burns.