Thousands flee as fire burns homes in Calif. city
Fueled by high temperatures and high winds, flames engulf Santa Barbara and drive more than 13,000 people from their homes.
Thu, May 07, 2009 at 11:15 AM
FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN: Wildfires have scorched 500 acres in Santa Barbara, foreshadowing an early start to fire season in drought-plagued California. (Photo: Keith Collum/AP)
A wildfire that burned at least a dozen homes quieted at dawn Thursday, but it was still out of control, thousands of people remained out of their homes and another round of howling winds were expected later in the day.
More fire crews were called in from around the state to battle the blaze that had swelled to 500 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 13,000 people in this scenic coastal city.
Eight firefighters were injured, at least three seriously, and the number of evacuees could double later in the day.
"We really can't do any containment lines. It's too dangerous," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said. "We're doing some structure protection, but firefighters can be in a safe location one minute and in a dangerous situation the next."
While the morning was cool and breezy, temperatures were expected to top 100 degrees and winds picking up through the day could gust up to 50 mph. Those were the same conditions that drove the tame blaze into ferocious activity Wednesday afternoon.
"Today is a concern to us," Sadecki said. "It could be a mirror of yesterday."
At least a dozen homes, some of them mansions, were reduced to rubble but authorities had no precise figure. The flames hopscotched across the canyon homes, burning some while sparing others.
About 1,300 firefighters were on the lines including crews from Monterey County and San Diego County, along with prison inmates from the California Department of Corrections. Eight helicopters dropped water through the night and eight fixed-wing aircraft were set to join them after dawn, officials said.
Eight firefighters were injured, Sadecki said. They included three who came from Ventura County to help out and were caught when their engine was overtaken by flames, their department said in a statement. They were in serious but stable condition Thursday.
Another firefighter suffered a head injury but returned to fire lines. Sadecki had no details on the other four injured firefighters.
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. Another 13,000 were warned they may need to evacuate.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, and the National Weather Service issued a "Red Flag" warning for fire danger through Friday morning.
Some of the initial evacuees 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.
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.
Huge mansions and humble homes alike were destroyed, 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," Sadecki said.
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 nearly 650 homes, apartments and other structures in the county.
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.
Copyright 2009 AP News