Massive Southern California wildfire now halfway contained

In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a Bombardier 415 Super Scooper aircraft comes in for a water drop below East Camino Cielo in the hills above Montecito, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. Thousands of firefighters tried Sunday to shield coastal communities from one of the biggest wildfires in California history while a funeral procession rolled past burn-scarred hillsides in honor of one of their colleagues who was killed battling the flames. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane makes a water drop on hot spots along the hillside east of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. One of the largest wildfires in California history is now 40 percent contained but flames still threaten coastal communities as dry, gusty winds are predicted to continue.(Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a Bombardier 415 Super Scooper makes a water drop on hot spots along the hillside east of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. One of the largest wildfires in California history is now 40 percent contained but flames still threaten coastal communities as dry, gusty winds are predicted to continue. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane makes a water drop on hot spots along the hillside east of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. One of the largest wildfires in California history is now 40 percent contained but flames still threaten coastal communities as dry, gusty winds are predicted to continue.(Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters standing guard and providing structure protection at a home off Gibraltar Road watch as a bucket full of water is dropped from a helicopter onto a hot spot nearby in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. The fire has burned more than 700 homes and currently threatens communities in Santa Barbara County. Some 8,000 firefighters are deployed to the so-called Thomas Fire, which has burned for nearly two weeks and still threatens 18,000 homes. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters and a bulldozer from Santa Barbara County Fire watch from El Camino Cielo as a helicopter readies to make a water drop on a hot spot above Montecito, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a pair of firefighting water dropping helicopters pass while working on hot spots along the hillside east of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. One of the largest wildfires in California history is now 40 percent contained but flames still threaten coastal communities as dry, gusty winds are predicted to continue. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames burn near power lines in Sycamore Canyon near West Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif. One of the largest wildfires in California history is now 40 percent contained but flames still threaten coastal communities as dry, gusty winds are predicted to continue. Some 8,000 firefighters are deployed to the so-called Thomas Fire, which has burned for nearly two weeks and still threatens 18,000 homes. Swaths of Santa Barbara County remain under evacuation orders. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a Bombardier 415 Super Scooper makes a water drop on hot spots along the hillside east of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday morning, Dec. 17, 2017. Wind gusts of up to 52 mph have been recorded in the area using a hand held weather device. The Office of Emergency Services announced the orders Saturday as Santa Ana winds pushed the fire close to the community. The mandatory evacuation zone is now 17 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, extending from coastal mountains northwest of Los Angeles to the ocean. Winds in the foothill area are hitting around 30 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

LOS ANGELES — Firefighters took advantage of calm winds in Southern California to reach 50 percent containment of a massive wildfire, officials said.

"We've had a very productive day," said Deputy Chief Mark Brown of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protections. "The weather conditions were just right for us."

Monday was the first of a two-day window of calm winds in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties where the so-called Thomas Fire has burned for two weeks.

The fire northwest of Los Angeles has now spread to about 423 square miles (1,095 square kilometers), making it the third biggest since accurate records were kept starting in 1932. The largest, the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, burned about 427 square miles.

Officials estimate the Thomas Fire will grow to become the biggest in state history before full containment, which is expected by Jan. 7.

It was still threatening communities northwest of Los Angeles, where thousands remain under evacuation orders.

The hot, gusty winds that caused a huge flare-up and forced more residents to flee over the weekend are expected to come back Wednesday.

The fire churning through brush in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has burned more than 1,000 structures, including at least 750 homes. Some 18,000 more residences are still threatened.

Michael and Sonia Behrman told KABC-TV they fled their hillside home when heavy smoke blew in and returned to find it in ashes.

"It's just hard to put into words," Michael Behrman said. "It's where we live. It's just smoke and ruin right now."

The body of a firefighter killed while battling the blaze was transported Sunday in a procession that rolled through five counties before ending up at a funeral home in San Diego. Mourners stood on freeway overpasses to pay respects to firefighter Cory Iverson, 32, who died Dec. 14 of burns and smoke inhalation. He is survived by his pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter.

The blaze is also blamed for the Dec. 6 death of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car crash on an evacuation route.

Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that destroyed entire neighborhoods to the legions of people attacking it. More than 8,000 firefighters from nearly a dozen states battled the third largest wildfire in state history.

The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $117 million.

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Follow Weber at https://twitter.com/WeberCM.

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