By Phoenix Tso
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) - A raging wildfire pushed toward a string of California coastal cities on Sunday, prompting new evacuations as crews fought to save homes in the face of gusty winds that have fueled blazes across the state for nearly a week.
Authorities ordered residents in parts of Carpinteria and Montecito to leave early on Sunday as the Thomas Fire edged closer to Santa Barbara, about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Los Angeles on the scenic central California coast.
The blaze, the worst of six major fires in Southern California in the last week and already the 10th largest on record in the state since 1932, has blackened 173,000 acres (62,726 hectares), destroyed hundreds of structures and left nearly 90,000 homes and businesses without power.
The combination of Santa Ana winds and rugged terrain in the mountains that run through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have hampered firefighting efforts, and officials said the Thomas Fire was only 15 percent contained on Sunday.
The National Weather Service said winds of up to 55 miles (88 km) per hour were expected on Sunday evening, up from gusts of 40 miles per hour on Saturday.
The fires burning across Southern California have forced the evacuation of some 200,000 people and destroyed nearly 800 structures.
Among them are residents of Montecito, one of the state's wealthiest communities and home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey.
Emmy Leikin, an Emmy-winning songwriter who was ordered to evacuate her Montecito home at 9 a.m. on Sunday, said she fled with only her cell phone, medication, eyeglasses and a few apples.
Leikin, 74, said she doesn't know the condition of her home and belongings but "none of that means anything when it is your safety."
WORST IN A DECADE
The fires that began last Monday night collectively amounted to one of the worst conflagrations across Southern California in the last decade. They have, however, been far less deadly than the blazes in Northern California's wine country in October that killed over 40.
In the last week, only one death has been reported, a 70-year-old woman who died Wednesday in a car accident as she attempted to flee the flames in Ventura County. Scores of horses have died, including at least 46 at a thoroughbred training facility in San Diego county.
Residents and firefighters alike have been alarmed by the speed with which the fires spread, reaching into the heart of cities like Ventura.
At the Ventura County Fairgrounds, evacuees slept in makeshift beds while rescued horses were sheltered in stables. Peggy Scissons, 78, arrived at the shelter with her dog last Wednesday, after residents of her mobile home park were forced to leave. She has not yet found out whether her home is standing.
"I don't know what's gonna happen next or whether I'll be able to go home," she said. "It would be one thing if I were 40 or 50, but I'm 78. What the heck do I do?"
James Brown, 57, who retired from Washington State's forestry service and has lived in Ventura for a year, was forced to leave his house along with his wife last week because both have breathing problems.
"We knew a fire was coming, but we didn't know it would be this bad," said Brown, who is in a wheelchair.
Some of the other fires, in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, have been largely controlled by the thousands of firefighters on the ground this week.
Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 90 percent contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in Los Angeles' posh Bel Air neighborhood was 75 percent contained.
North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre (1,659 hectare) Lilac Fire was 60 percent contained by Sunday.Governor Jerry Brown, who surveyed the devastation in Ventura on Saturday, said the outbreak of December fires may be "the new normal" for the state, saying global warming was exacerbating drought conditions.
(Reporting by Phoenix Tso; Additional reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone and Mary Milliken)