Officials lift most California wildfire evacuations

The worst appears to be over for a massive wildfire that plagued a wide swath of the Southern California coast for 2½ weeks.

The last mandatory evacuation orders for the fire were called off by Thursday. At its peak, the fire drove about 100,000 people from their homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Only a remote wilderness valley remained under a voluntary evacuation warning.

The so-called Thomas Fire could very well still grow to become the biggest wildfire in California history, but it would do so as a gentle giant, not a raging beast.

The blaze was 65 percent contained and had burned just over 426 square miles (1,103 square kilometers) making it the second-largest in California's history. As of Friday morning it was within 500 acres (202 hectares) of overtaking the size of the record holder, a blaze that struck San Diego County in 2003.

Authorities said the fire is moving slowly in wilderness on its north flank but there was minimal activity elsewhere.

The passage of a cold front through the area late in the week produced strong winds in the Montecito area near Santa Barbara but caused no remarkable fire behavior, officials said. Use of controlled burns to clear brush were temporarily hampered by a spike in humidity and a light frosting of snow dusted the tops of some ridges.

The Thomas Fire, which began Dec. 4, is responsible for two deaths and has destroyed at least 750 homes.

Days of fierce, often erratic gusts combined with extremely dry weather pushed the blaze with incredible speed as it moved through Ventura County's agricultural Santa Clara Valley, into the city of Ventura and then moved northwestward, threatening the coastal communities of Santa Barbara County.