Friday, May 8, 2009
California Firefighters struggled Friday to get ahead of a raging wildfire that was moving dangerously close to heavily populated areas in this idyllic coastal city and had forced the evacuation of an estimated 30,000 residents.
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 morning that the fire had grown since the night before, when it measured roughly 2,700 acres, or 4 square miles. She did not have an updated estimates of the fire's size or burned acreage.
"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."
Roughly 12,000 more residents have been ordered to leave their homes, including those living in a densely populated area north of U.S. 101 that's home to several mobile home parks. An estimated 18,000 previously were ordered to leave.
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 134, 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.
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.
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.
Gregg Patronyk, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident whose parents' home was destroyed by a 1990 wildfire and who had to evacuate his home in November, said he began soaking his roof when he saw other houses burning Wednesday.
"It started firestorming dramatically," he said. "The fire got within 200 to 300 feet of my house. There was a lot of pressure to leave. Police wanted me out and I got a frantic call from my sister, who was walking up the hill to get me. So I packed up the car and left, picking her up on the way."
State Assemblyman Pedro Nava said he and his wife fled their home for a friend's, bringing along their pets, some clothes, photos and documents.
"I've learned how important preparation is in an emergency," he said. "The public has to be prepared to move, and in Santa Barbara they are prepared. When the police squad car came through with loudspeakers telling us to leave, there was no arguing. And they will all be back."