'All hell broke loose' in California wildfire
30,000 evacuated so far, 23,000 more could be told to leave
NBC, msnbc.com and news services, Fri., May 8, 2009
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Gusty winds on Friday pushed flames to the edge of the Santa Barbara city limit after destroying dozens of foothill homes in the past three days.
City Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said "all hell broke loose" early Friday as flames rushed down steep canyons. "We saw the fire spread laterally across the top of the city and the fire front extends to almost 5 miles now."
He said fire crews fought a heroic battle to keep the blaze from pushing southward through a key park and into the city proper while other teams scrambled to put out roof fires at the edge of town.
The evacuation area was expanded overnight as the eastern and western flanks advanced on the neighboring communities of Montecito and Goleta.
More than 30,000 area residents have been ordered to leave their homes and about 23,000 others were warned to be ready to flee at a moment's notice, county officials said. That amounts to over half of the population of Santa Barbara, located 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Dry weather, scorching temperatures and wind gusts of up to 65 mph are forecast for Friday. By midday Friday, 3,500 acres had been scorched.
The fire line overnight jumped a main highway, U.S. 154. Neighborhoods of multimillion dollar mansions stood like ghost towns, bathed in the eerie orange glow cast by the nearby blaze.
Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Jodi Dyck said Friday that the fire had grown since the night before, when it measured roughly 2,700 acres.
"It really got going during the night. Some areas have 45-year fuel. The wind is all over the place," Santa Barbara city fire Capt. Mike De Pont said. "For this time of year this activity is unusual."
Second shelter opens
A second evacuation shelter was opened Thursday to accommodate 900 additional evacuees. All 190 beds were filled at the first shelter at a high school.
The blaze was approaching homes in the city's more populated, flat area below its steep canyons. Santa Barbara city fire spokesman Gary Pitney said flames jumped a road dividing the hilly terrain from the flatlands below and ignited spot fires in brush surrounding houses.
Pitney said the fire also pushed west across state Route 154, the key thoroughfare between Santa Barbara and wine country to the north.
Kelley Gouette, a deputy incident commander with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, likened the fire to "a blowtorch."
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said the blaze was particularly tough to fight as it spread into rugged terrain with thick brush that served as fuel and limited firefighting aircraft.
Firefighters are "running pretty thin on equipment," he said.
Firefighters injured, burned
Officials said 11 firefighters were injured, including three who were burned when they sheltered in a house during a firestorm. They were reported in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center but two will need skin grafts and surgery. Other injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to sprained ankles.
About 2,300 firefighters from many departments were on the lines, aided by aircraft. The fire was just 10 percent contained.
The seasonal wildfires that menace this idyllic coastal city home to screen stars, former presidents and Oprah Winfrey roared to life earlier in the year than usual but their ferocity is familiar.
Firefighters have been wary of "sundowners" fierce winds that late in the day can sweep down from the Santa Ynez Mountains towering close behind Santa Barbara.
The benignly named Jesusita Fire was a slumbering day-old brush fire on rugged slopes above the city when a sundowner hit at midafternoon Wednesday, hurling towering flames into homes and spitting embers into more distant neighborhoods.
Serene atmosphere belies danger
The city's location on the state's central coast gives it some of the best weather in the world, with temperatures routinely topping out in the 70s, and views of the Pacific Ocean. Now with a population of about 90,000, it dates to the Spanish colonial era of California and a Roman Catholic mission established in the 1780s is a major tourist attraction.
But the geography that gives it beauty and a serene atmosphere also brings danger.
In November, a wind-driven fire burned 200 houses in Santa Barbara and Montecito, including the home of actor Christopher Lloyd. Winfrey's estate escaped, along with the home of actor Rob Lowe, among many celebrities who have area homes.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.Wildfire devours mansions, humble homes
At least 13,000 flee flames as Schwarzenegger declares state of emergency
The Associated Press, May 7, 2009
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Winds swirled and homes of all sizes burned as a wildfire descended on this scenic coastal city amid hot, dry conditions that resembled late summer more than the middle of spring.
Firefighters had a brief respite of moderate breezes early Thursday, but expected another day of heat, gusts and potential destruction as they took on a blaze that had swelled to 500 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 homes.
TV news helicopters showed at least a dozen homes ablaze as night fell, but authorities had no immediate estimate of how many had been destroyed.
Huge mansions and humble homes alike were reduced to rubble, leaving palm trees swaying over gutted ruins. Aerial footage showed five or more luxury homes burning along one crest-top road, and many flare-ups dotting the residential hills were apparently burning homes.
"The fire is very spotty and patchy and there's a lot of smoke," which makes it difficult to see the damage," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said. "Because it involves people's homes, we don't want to speculate."
The fire went from tame to explosive Wednesday afternoon as gusts up to 50 mph in triple-digit temperatures hurled the fire from north to south into neighborhoods, Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said.
It remained out of control Thursday morning, though temperatures dropped to the 60s and winds had grown calm.
'Red Flag' warning
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, and the National Weather Service issued a "Red Flag" warning for fire danger, predicting strong wind danger through Friday morning.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department spokesman Drew Sugars said 5,430 homes were under mandatory evacuation. The estimated population of those homes was 13,575 people, he said.
Some of the evacuated were allowed to return to their homes early Thursday, the county said in a news release, but officials had no estimate of how many people were affected.
More than 800 firefighters were on the lines, and 20 more strike teams totaling about 1,300 firefighters were requested.
"The firefighters are picking houses and seeing if they can make a stand," Sadecki said.
Three Ventura County firefighters were injured when their engine was overtaken by flames as they tried to protect a structure, their department said in a statement. Two were treated for moderate burns and a third was treated for smoke inhalation, said center spokesman Roy Forbes. All were in serious but stable condition.
Their fire engine was heavily damaged in the incident.
The blaze bore down on the city at frightening speed, said Chad Jenson, a food server at Giovanni's Pizza.
"The sky is just deep orange and black, pretty much our whole hillside is going down," Jenson said.
In a city that has experienced a number of wildfires, Jenson said this one was as close to the city center as any he had seen. Less than six months ago a fire destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito and in 1990, a fire killed one and destroyed 641 homes, apartments and other structures in the county. The new fire reached the area burned by that blaze Wednesday.
Santa Barbara, a city of 90,000 about 100 miles west of Los Angeles, rises rapidly from the coastline on the south to the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north. It is subject to "Sundowners" strong winds that blow downslope through passes and canyons of the mountain range and offshore.
Elsewhere, firefighters were battling a blaze in rural southeastern Arizona that destroyed three houses near Sierra Vista on Tuesday and injured a man. The fire charred about 4,200 acres near Fort Huachuca, threatening about 50 homes in a subdivision. Containment was estimated at 15 percent Wednesday.
In southern New Mexico, a wildfire in the mountains near Timberon charred about 100 acres, burning at least three structures. State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said firefighters hadn't been able to confirm what types of buildings they were.
Fifteen residents have been evacuated, and 70 structures were threatened, Ware said.
© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.Thousands flee Southern Calif. wildfire
1,200 homes evacuated due to blaze in Southern California foothills
NBC News and news services, May 6, 2009
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Helicopter water drops and calmer winds helped crews hold off a wildfire Wednesday that forced the evacuation of several thousand people living in 1,200 homes.
"The fire laid down quite a bit during the night because of the lack of winds," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said. "It's looking really good."
But Sadecki said a surge of wind could bring the fire back to life. The National Weather Service said wind out of the north-northwest could blow at 20 to 35 mph, with gusts up to 55 mph.
Officials lowered the number of acres burned to just under 200 and not 400 as earlier reported but noted the fire was at zero containment.
In total, some 2,000 homes north of Santa Barbara were threatened by the fire, which portended an early start to California's annual wildfire siege.
Fourteen strike teams, including 70 engines and three helicopters, battled the blaze. The helicopters, normally grounded after dark, continued dropping water on the fire for much of the night, Sadecki said.
Mandatory evacuations were in effect for residential areas spanning a region about 2 1/2 miles wide, officials said. Five schools and a museum were also closed.
No structures had been lost, but flames pulled within a half-mile of some neighborhoods, said county spokeswoman Pat Wheatley.
The fire began Tuesday afternoon in the foothills above San Roque Canyon and grew quickly grew. The cause was not known, Sadecki said.
Less than six months ago, a wind-driven, 2,000-acre blaze destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito.
Elsewhere, crews in rural southeastern Arizona were battling a wildfire that had burned four or five homes and injured one person.
The fire had charred about 2,000 acres of rolling grassland, dry brush and scattered trees near Fort Huachuca, and containment was rated at zero late Tuesday.
Officials in Santa Barbara said some of the aircraft there might have to be redeployed to Arizona given the more imminent threat to homes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.