California wildfire scorches area bigger than New York City as governor warns: 'This is the new normal'

Eleanor Rose
Huge blaze: A firefighting helicopter battles to contain flames: AFP

The huge, destructive wildfire that has hit Southern California has now engulfed an area bigger than New York City - and is expected to grow.

The Thomas Fire north of Los Angeles has scorched more than 270 square miles, prompted tens of thousands of evacuations and destroyed nearly 800 buildings.

The fire that started on December 4 is still only 15 percent contained. It was fanned by dry winds that spread embers and expanded the blaze.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown says the percentage containment will likely fall, not because of a lack of progress, but because of the fire's frightening expected growth.

Engulfed: Firefighters investigate a blazing building (AFP/Getty Images)

The National Weather Service reported that gusts up to 40 mph are expected through Monday.

More than 30,000 people are under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Barbara as crews with help from a fleet water-dropping planes and helicopters battled to save homes.

The county fire department posted a photo of one home engulfed in flames. Thousands of homes and businesses in the county were without power.

The air thick with acrid smoke, even residents of areas not under evacuation orders took the opportunity to leave, fearing another shutdown of US 101, a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week.

Officials handed out masks to residents who stayed behind in Montecito, the wealthy hillside enclave that's home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Rob Lowe.

"Our house is under threat of being burned," Ellen DeGeneres tweeted at midday Sunday. "We just had to evacuate our pets. I'm praying for everyone in our community and thankful to all the incredible firefighters."

A lack of rain has officials on edge in the whole of California because of parched conditions and fears that the typical fire season has changed.

"This is the new normal," Governor Jerry Brown warned on Saturday after surveying damage from the deadly Ventura fire. "We're about ready to have firefighting at Christmas. This is very odd and unusual."

High fire risk is expected to last into January and the governor and experts said climate change is making it a year-round threat.

Additional reporting by Associated Press