Thomas Fire: Powerful winds threaten to fuel blaze in Southern California

Vehicles pass beside a wall of flames on the 101 highway as it reaches the coast during the Thomas wildfire near Ventura, California on December 6, 2017. California motorists commuted past a blazing inferno Wednesday as wind-whipped wildfires raged across the Los Angeles region, with flames triggering the closure of a major freeway and mandatory evacuations in an area dotted with mansions. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Firefighters battling the Thomas Fire will face more challenges Saturday with the return of powerful winds as the blaze marks a grim milestone in size.

Since the massive blaze broke out 12 days ago, it has killed a firefighter and a woman trying to evacuate.

The next 24 hours will be crucial as wind gusts of up to 55 mph and low humidity are forecast through Sunday. Strong winds and dry conditions are expected to fuel the existing blaze and could spark new fires, CNN meteorologist Ivan Cabrera said.

At 256,000 acres, the Thomas Fire is the fourth-largest blaze in modern California history and is slowly devouring its way up the list of the state’s largest wildfires. The fire, which is 35% contained, has burned an area larger than New York City.

While weekend conditions will test firefighters, winds should ease late Sunday night into Monday, allowing for additional containment, forecasters said.

Two deaths linked to fires

Firefighters are mourning the death of one of their own. Cory David Iverson, 32, lost his life battling the Thomas Fire on Thursday.

Iverson was a fire apparatus engineer from San Diego, and had been a firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — also known as Cal Fire — since 2009.

He drove a fire engine and was killed on the east flank of the Thomas Fire, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said.

Iverson was with other crew members when he was killed, she said.

He leaves behind his 2-year-old daughter and a pregnant wife who’s due this spring. His death is the first firefighter fatality in the most recent string of wildfires in California.

A woman was also killed in a car crash while evacuating last week, and Cal Fire says it considers her death to be fire-related.