Firefighters Race to Stop Blaze Before Winds Erupt

By: AP
By: AP

MONTECITO, Calif. – Firefighters struggled to get control of a raging wildfire Friday that destroyed more than 100 homes and injured 13 people in this Mediterranean-style coastal town that has been home to celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Oprah Winfrey.

Firefighters said they had to work fast before the winds picked up. Evening winds known locally as "sundowners," gusting up to 70 mph from land to sea, pushed the fire with frightening speed Thursday, chewing up mansions, exploding eucalyptus trees and turning rolling hills into a glowing nightmare.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County on Friday as residents waited anxiously for word of their homes. Many of them fled flames with just a few minutes' notice.

Helicopter pilots worked through the night, using night vision goggles to drop water on the flames. At daybreak Friday, nearly 20 copters and air tankers were on the job, emergency officials said.

On the ground, fire crews stationed in cul-de-sacs engaged in "hand-to-hand combat" with the flames on winding residential roads, said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief John Scherrei.

"We're going to have a very, very tough day today for firefighting and when the winds kick up this afternoon, we're going to have an incredibly challenging situation," said Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Ron Prince. "Control of this fire is not even in sight."

Authorities say the fire broke out just before 6 p.m. Thursday and spread to about 2,500 acres — nearly 4 square miles — by early Friday. It destroyed dozens of luxury homes and parts of a college campus in the tony community of Montecito and an unknown number of homes in neighboring Santa Barbara. The cause was not immediately known. There was no estimate for containment for the fire, which more than 500 firefighters were battling.

"That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom," said Bob McNall, pointing to the black hillside above his home. The 70-year-old said he and his son and grandson used hoses to protect his house and five others, but that firefighters had no chance to contain the blaze Thursday.

"The whole sky was full of embers, there was nothing that (the firefighters) could do. It was just too much," McNall said.

Tom Bain said authorities ordered him to leave his home around midnight. He quickly collected his three cats, work files and computer and was out of his house within five minutes. On his way out, Bain saw at least six mansions on a ridge above his home explode into flames.

"I saw $15 million in houses burn, without a doubt," the 54-year-old electrician said. "They were just blowing up. It was really, intensely hot."

Montecito, a quiet enclave known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities. Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe are among the homeowners there, though their publicists told the AP their homes had not been destroyed and neither was in the area Thursday night. Michael Douglas and his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, also have a home in the area.

Thousands of feet above the flames, footage shot from television helicopters showed what initially looked like a massive campfire with dozens of glowing embers.

When cameras zoomed in, however, what appeared to be flaring coals turned out to be houses — many of them sprawling estates — gutted by flame. Palm trees were lit like burning matches.

"It looked like lava coming down a volcano," Leslie Hollis Lopez said as she gathered belongings from her house.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown, who flew over the burn area early Friday, said the Mount Calvary Benedictine monastery appeared to be completely destroyed and that he counted more than 80 homes burned to the ground, many in the winding streets around Westmont College.

Some of the Christian liberal arts college's 1,000 students were caught off-guard by the rapidly moving flames Thursday amid wooded rolling hills. The fire left the air dense with smoke and the scent of burning pine.

Beth Lazor, 18, said she was in her dorm when the fire alarm went off. She said she only had time to grab her laptop, phone, a teddy bear and a debit card before fleeing the burning building.

Her roommate, Catherine Wilson, said she didn't have time to get anything.

"I came out and the whole hill was glowing," Wilson said. "There were embers falling down."

Flames chewed through a eucalyptus grove on the 110-acre campus and destroyed several buildings housing the physics and psychology departments, at least three dormitories and 14 faculty homes, college spokesman Scott Craig said.

"I saw flames about 100 feet high in the air shooting up with the wind just howling," he told AP Radio. "Now when the wind howls and you've got palm trees and eucalyptus trees that are literally exploding with their hot oil, you've got these big, red hot embers that are flying through the sky and are catching anything on fire."

Michele Mickiewicz, a spokeswoman with the county emergency operations center, said Friday that 10 people were treated for smoke inhalation and three had burn injuries. Earlier, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital reported receiving three patients with substantial burns.

The fire temporarily knocked out power to more than 20,000 homes in Santa Barbara, a city of about 90,000.

About 300 Westmont students fled to a gym where they spent the night sleeping on cots. Some stood in groups praying, others sobbed openly and comforted each other.

Meanwhile, about 200 people spent the night at an evacuation center at a high school in nearby Goleta, but rest was out of the question for Ed Naha, a 58-year-old writer who lives in the hills above Santa Barbara.

"I don't think we are going to have the house when we go back," Naha said.

"We are used to seeing smoke because we do have fires up here, but I've never seen that reddish, hellish glow that close," he said. "I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up."

Montecito sustained a major fire in 1977, when more than 200 homes burned. A fire in 1964 burned about 67,000 acres and damaged 150 houses and buildings.

The community's popularity among celebrities goes back nearly a century. The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch was the honeymoon site of John F. Kennedy in 1953.


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