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California's Thomas fire grows to fifth largest in state history as celebrities evacuate

A massive blaze in Southern California has continued to spread and is now the fifth-largest wildfire in the state's history.

The Thomas fire, centered on the Santa Barbara area, had spread across 231,700 acres by Monday evening — a little less than half the size of Rhode Island. As of Monday, the fire destroyed 794 buildings and was 20% contained.

Another 18,000 structures were still in harm's way, including homes of some of the area's high-profile celebrity residents. Officials have said they worry the blaze could worsen because of wind gusts and predicted dry conditions for the next week.

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"We've had events like this in Southern California over the years, but this is more intense and it's longer. We're seeing dry weather forecast well through this week down in Southern California and maybe beyond," Chief Ken Pimlott, who heads the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told California Public Radio. The dryness mixed with gusty winds are the makings for a "catastrophic fire," he said.

One woman died in a car crash while fleeing the fires. On Sunday, one of the nearly 6,400 firefighters working to contain the growing fire broke his leg.

Santa Barbara County, which calls itself "the American Riviera" and lies northwest of Los Angeles, is a popular area for the stars.

Wearing a face mask and showing the smoke surrounding his home, actor Rob Lowe recorded a video as he evacuated his Santa Barbara house.

Fire fighters attack the Thomas Fire’s north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai , California, U.S., December 9, 2017.
Gene Blevins | Reuters
Fire fighters attack the Thomas Fire’s north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai , California, U.S., December 9, 2017.

"Praying for the people in my area," he said in a livestreamed Instagram video. "Hope everyone is getting out safe like we are and thanks for the prayers and thoughts. Good luck to the firefighters. We need you."

Talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres also live in communities threatened by the blaze. Winfrey owns a home in Montecito and DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi bought an oceanfront estate for $18.6 million in Carpinteria in October.

Director George Lucas along with actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis also own homes in the area. It was not known whether any were in the city during the fires.

DeGeneres tweeted Sunday that she also had to start evacuating because her home is under threat of being burned.

"We just had to evacuate our pets," she said. "I'm praying for everyone in our community and thankful to all the incredible firefighters."

Winfrey also posted to Twitter about the blaze and said she was praying for her community and beyond.

In Southern California, there's finally some good news in the weather forecast this week as the Santa Ana winds are forecast to be much less powerful than the ferocious breezes from last week, the National Weather Service said.

However, locally windy to breezy conditions will continue to buffet the mountains and some canyon locations through Wednesday, according to AccuWeather, which said the late-night and morning hours will be the windiest times of the day.

The weather service in Los Angeles said that "the lower wind speeds will be a boon to the firefighting efforts, but the very low humidity will continue and these will hinder the efforts to control the fires."

A firefighter is working on extinguishing the Lilac Fire, a fast moving wildfire in Bonsall, California, U.S., December 7, 2017.
Mike Blake | Reuters
A firefighter is working on extinguishing the Lilac Fire, a fast moving wildfire in Bonsall, California, U.S., December 7, 2017.

Finally, by Friday, winds are forecast to turn around, blowing from the moist ocean rather than dry land. This will raise relative humidity and greatly aid reducing the fire threat, the weather service said.

However, there won't be any helpful rain or snow to dampen the fires this week as no precipitation is forecast for at least the next seven days anywhere in California, the weather service said. The bone-dry fall is another factor in the fires: Only a paltry one-tenth of an inch of rain has fallen in Los Angeles since Oct. 1, which is about 5% of average.

Contributing: Doyle Rice and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY, and The Associated Press.