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SoCal's Thomas Fire now 25 percent contained, but continues to threaten homes

A man watches the Thomas Fire in the hills above Carpinteria, California, December 11, 2017. The Thomas Fire in California's Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed more than 230,000 acres over the past week making it the fifth largest fire in the state's history.
A man watches the Thomas Fire in the hills above Carpinteria, California, December 11, 2017. The Thomas Fire in California's Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed more than 230,000 acres over the past week making it the fifth largest fire in the state's history.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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The Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the fifth largest in state history, saw containment increase Tuesday from 20 to 25 percent — while acres burned also increased, from 234,200 to 236,000 acres. Winds continued to prove a problem for firefighters, officials said.

The fire continued to threaten thousands of homes as it churned through coastal mountains amid persistently dangerous weather conditions.

The fire has destroyed 705 single-family homes. Red Flag warnings for fire danger due to Santa Ana winds and a critical lack of moisture were extended through the week instead of expiring Monday afternoon as was previously forecast — they're currently set to expire Friday morning.

The cause of the Thomas Fire and several other Southern California wildfires remain under investigation, but electric utility SoCal Edison said in a Monday release that it believes the investigations by state officials "include the possible role of its facilities" and that they now include locations beyond those previously identified as the apparent origin of the fires.

Adli Huntley with the California Conservation Corps has been helping firefighters behind the front lines for more than a week now. Some days he’s worked 16 hours straight, he said. 

“Imagine labor. Like, chopping trees, chopping bushes... I’m exhausted dude. But hey, I’m not gonna complain about it,” Huntley said. 

There are hundreds of Conservation Corps workers doing the same thing. In shifts, they sleep in tents at the Ventura County fairgrounds, wake up and do it all again. 

Huntley’s lips are chapped and cracked and he wears a bandana around his neck. He’s hoping to be off by Christmas. 

“They’re saying like before Christmas, like, the 24th. So Christmas Eve,” he said. 

Huntley thinks of himself like a firefighter in training. Despite the grueling work, he wants to fight forest fires for a living.

"It doesn't get much drier than this folks," the National Weather Service Service tweeted earlier, 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.

This satellite image provided by NASA shows smoke from wildfires near Los Angeles in Southern California, lower right, blowing out over the Pacific Ocean, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. The U.S. National Weather Service says the smoke is first pushed westward by easterly winds at lower altitudes. As it rises the smoke encounters high-altitude southerly winds that push it towards the North Coast of California and well out into the Pacific Ocean. White clouds are seen at left.
This satellite image provided by NASA shows smoke from wildfires near Los Angeles in Southern California, lower right, blowing out over the Pacific Ocean, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. The U.S. National Weather Service says the smoke is first pushed westward by easterly winds at lower altitudes. As it rises the smoke encounters high-altitude southerly winds that push it towards the North Coast of California and well out into the Pacific Ocean. White clouds are seen at left.
NASA via AP

Officials handed out masks to those who stayed behind in Montecito, an exclusive community about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles that's home to stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Drew Barrymore.

Actor Rob Lowe wore a mask as he live-streamed his family evacuating Sunday from their smoke-shrouded home.

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"Praying for the people in my area," he said to his Instagram followers. "Hope everybody's getting out safe like we are, and thanks for the prayers and thoughts. And good luck to the firefighters, we need you!"

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that neighbors were helping each other and their animals get to safety.

"I'm sending lots of love and gratitude to the fire department and sheriffs. Thank you all," she wrote.

Flames from the Thomas Fire burn in the hills above Carpinteria, California, December 11, 2017.
The Thomas Fire in California's Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed more than 230,000 acres over the past week making it the fifth largest fire in the state's history.
Flames from the Thomas Fire burn in the hills above Carpinteria, California, December 11, 2017. The Thomas Fire in California's Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed more than 230,000 acres over the past week making it the fifth largest fire in the state's history.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Customers coming into Jeannine's American Bakery in Montecito brushed ash from their clothes and marveled at smoke so heavy that visibility was down to just a few feet.

"There's so much ash it's unbelievable," manager Richard Sanchez said. "Everything is white. The streets are covered, cars are covered, our parking lot is covered."

Dr. Helene Gardner, an expert in air quality at University of California, Santa Barbara, watched ash fall "like a fine snow" from her home after the school postponed final exams until January. She said her environmental sciences students got a kick from the fact that the delay was directly related to their field of study.

Gardner warned that the air alerts should be taken seriously because of airborne particulates — "nasty buggers" — that can lodge in lungs and cause respiratory problems.

She said the levels of particulates from a wildfire can approach those seen near coal-burning plants in pollution-heavy China and are especially problematic for people exerting themselves.

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"When I look out my window and see someone bicycling I think, 'No, no, no, get off your bike and walk!'" she said.

Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the 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.

Evacuations

Mandatory

Voluntary:

Road closures

City of Ojai, Ojai Valley and unincorporated areas

City of Ventura and unincorporated areas

City of Fillmore and unincorporated areas

Santa Barbara County

School closures

The following schools were scheduled to be closed Tuesday (and later, where noted):

Santa Barbara County

Closed through the end of the week (to reopen in January):

Closed Tuesday:

Ventura County:

John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.