More flee as flames approach enclave where Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities live. A red flag warning has been issued because of hot, dry, windy conditions. The fire is now the third-largest in state history.

Thomas Fire snakes between homes in Montecito in California, US on December 16, 2017.
Thomas Fire snakes between homes in Montecito in California, US on December 16, 2017. (AFP)

Residents piled into cars and fled on Saturday as surging winds drove one of the biggest fires in California's history toward the wealthy coastal enclave of Montecito, northwest of Los Angeles.

The mandatory evacuations around Montecito and neighbouring Summerland on the outskirts of Santa Barbara came as winds that had eased a day earlier roared back at around 48 kilometres per hour (30 mph), with gusts to about 97 kph (60 mph). 

A portion of Santa Barbara also was under mandatory evacuation. The city's zoo was under voluntary evacuation, and workers there began putting some animals into crates and kennels as a precaution.

The northbound lanes of US Highway 101, coming up the coast from Los Angeles, were closed for a few hours south of Santa Barbara, with cars stopped on the freeway.

The 1,046-square kilometre (404-square-mile) Thomas Fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. 

Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.

"It is right above the homes," fire spokesman Jude Olivas said.

Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.

Evacuation orders for Ventura lifted

There was a spot of good news down the coast. 

Emergency officials announced that the same fire that was burning about 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of Montecito was 40 percent contained. Evacuation orders for the city of Ventura were lifted.

For the 13th straight day, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning of extreme fire danger because of hot, dry, windy conditions.

The fire is now the third-largest in California history. It has burned more than 700 homes and killed a state firefighter.

Cory Iverson, 32, died Thursday from burns and smoke inhalation, according to autopsy results announced Saturday by the Ventura County medical examiner's office. Details of his death were not released.

Since the fire began on December 4, about 95,000 people have been placed under mandatory evacuation. The evacuation zone near Santa Barbara on Saturday was 27 kilometres (17 miles) long and up to 8 kilometres (5 miles) wide.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $100 million.

Source: AP