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Massive Southern California wildfire now halfway contained

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Firefighters took advantage of calm winds in Southern California to reach 50 percent containment of a massive wildfire, officials said. "We've had a very productive day," said Deputy Chief Mark Brown of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protections. "The weather conditions were just right for us."

Monday was the first of a two-day window of calm winds in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties where the so-called Thomas Fire has burned for two weeks. The fire northwest of Los Angeles has now spread to about 423 square miles (1,095 square kilometers), making it the third biggest since accurate records were kept starting in 1932. The largest, the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, burned about 427 square miles.

Officials estimate the Thomas Fire will grow to become the biggest in state history before full containment, which is expected by Jan. 7. It was still threatening communities northwest of Los Angeles, where thousands remain under evacuation orders.

The hot, gusty winds that caused a huge flare-up and forced more residents to flee over the weekend are expected to come back Wednesday. The fire churning through brush in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has burned more than 1,000 structures, including at least 750 homes. Some 18,000 more residences are still threatened.

Michael and Sonia Behrman told KABC-TV they fled their hillside home when heavy smoke blew in and returned to find it in ashes. "It's just hard to put into words," Michael Behrman said. "It's where we live. It's just smoke and ruin right now."

The body of a firefighter killed while battling the blaze was transported Sunday in a procession that rolled through five counties before ending up at a funeral home in San Diego. Mourners stood on freeway overpasses to pay respects to firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, who died Dec. 14 of burns and smoke inhalation. He is survived by his pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter.

The blaze is also blamed for the Dec. 6 death of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car crash on an evacuation route. Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that destroyed entire neighborhoods to the legions of people attacking it. More than 8,000 firefighters from nearly a dozen states battled the third largest wildfire in state history.

The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $117 million.

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