Dangerous Winds Persist as Wildfires Roar in California

LOS ANGELES (AP) -

The winds aren’t changing for Southern California’s wildfires yet.

The fifth-largest blaze in state history was threatening thousands of homes as it churned through coastal mountains amid persistently dangerous weather conditions.

Red Flag warnings for fire danger due to Santa Ana winds and a critical lack of moisture were extended into the week instead of expiring Monday afternoon as was initially forecast.

“It doesn’t get much drier than this folks,” the National Weather Service Service tweeted, adding that more than 80 observation sites in the region reported afternoon relative humidity levels between just 1 and 9 percent.

On Monday, ash fell like snow and heavy smoke had residents gasping for air in foothill towns near Santa Barbara, the latest flare-up after a week of wind-fanned wildfires throughout the region.

With acrid smoke thick in the air, even residents not under evacuation orders were leaving, fearing another shutdown of a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week.

Officials handed out masks to those who stayed behind in Montecito, an exclusive community about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

The blaze — known as the Thomas fire — has destroyed 683 homes, officials said. It was partially contained after burning 362 square miles of dry brush and timber.

Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region’s most disastrous wildfires. They blow from inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

The National Weather Service said that if the long-term forecast holds, there will have been 13 consecutive days of dry offshore flow before it ends Friday afternoon. There have only been 17 longer streaks since 1948, including the record of 24 days set between December 1953 and January 1954.

High fire risk is expected to last into January.