'Productive day' for firefighters at the Thomas Fire

Fire now 50% contained, firefighters say

David McNew/Getty Images

(CNN) - The deadly Thomas Fire in Southern California is now the second largest blaze in state history, officials said Tuesday.

The 272,000-acre blaze is 55% contained, said Bill Murphy, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.

Milder winds, cooler temperatures and a higher relative humidity have aided firefighters for the past two days.

Cal Fire reported the blaze, which has killed one firefighter, is expected to be fully controlled by the end of the first week of January.

But fire weather watches are posted for Santa Barbara County late Wednesday into Thursday. Winds could gust to 60 mph, potentially leading to the fire spreading rapidly again. And gusty winds are to return to Los Angeles and Ventura counties on Thursday and Friday.

Fire on course to be biggest recorded in state

An area equal to about 425 square miles has burned so far, meaning the Thomas Fire is on course to be California's biggest in recorded history by January 7 -- the date authorities expect to have it contained. The largest, the 2003 Cedar Fire near San Diego, destroyed 273,246 acres.

The Thomas Fire also is the third-most destructive in structure losses, with more than 1,000 buildings burned, according to Cal Fire.

To date, it has burned an area larger than New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco combined -- and is larger than any city in California except Los Angeles.

About $110 million has been spent fighting the massive blaze, fire officials said. This year has been the costliest for wildfires in US history. Damages topped $10 billion even before the Thomas Fire and other recent blazes began.

Evacuation order lifted

The spate of fires, many of which burned for more than two weeks without respite, has affected more than 100,000 Californians, with many forced to flee their homes, either through mandatory or voluntary evacuations, and no guarantee they will have anything left once they return.

The Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office announced the lifting of evacuation orders for portions of the county Monday night.

Eye in the sky

The US Air Force has made a reaper drone available to the fire teams to aid in suppressing the Thomas Fire.

Crews at March Air Reserve Base east of Los Angeles have been working "around the clock to provide almost 24 hours of near real time situational awareness," according to a Facebook post from the Ventura County Fire Department.

The MQ-9 drone cruises at an altitude of 28,000, meaning its reconnaissance does not interfere with aerial firefighting tools such as helicopters and "super scooper" CL-415 firefighting aircraft.

"At that altitude the team and drone can quickly transition and acquire any point that may be of interest on the fire," the post says.

"In addition to its speed, the MQ-9 provides both an electro-optical and infrared camera which provides greater clarity on what the incident commander is viewing on the ground."

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