California firefighters douse hot spots as winds whip up: "Always nervous when the winds come up"

LOS ANGELES — Firefighters doused hot spots Thursday as winds increased that could whip up embers and cause flare-ups at the gigantic wildfire still smoldering northwest of Los Angeles.

Crews were in place to once again to provide structure protection above Montecito and other hillside communities in Santa Barbara County, where the last round of heavy gusts revived the flames and forced new evacuations last weekend.

"If there's an ember that's been there for a day or two that's still glowing, that can be a real risk if the winds start blowing," said fire information officer Brandon Vaccaro.

In neighboring Ventura County firefighters attacked a stubborn section of the blaze from the air because terrain near the agricultural city of Fillmore was too rugged to get ground crews in.

Some 18,000 homes and other buildings remained threatened.

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 was 60 percent contained and 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.

Some residents watched 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 an 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.

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.

"You're always nervous when the winds come up," Zappala said.

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, said Capt. David Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

"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."