Friday, November 14, 2008

Raging Calif. fire destroys 100 homes, injures 13

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Firefighters and a squadron of aircraft launched a desperate daylight attack Friday to push back a wind-whipped wildfire that destroyed at least 100 homes in a wealthy enclave, ravaged a college campus and forced thousands to evacuate.

At least 13 people were injured. The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

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.

"I saw $15 million in houses burn, without a doubt," said Santa Barbara resident Tom Bain, who evacuated. "They were just blowing up. It was really, intensely hot."

Montecito counts Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe among its celebrity homeowners, 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.

Fire officials began an aggressive attack from the air at daybreak with the help of nine water-dropping helicopters and 10 air tankers, said Terri Nisich, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Executive Office.

Earlier, Nicole Koon, another county spokeswoman, said about 5,400 homes were evacuated in tony Montecito, which has 14,000 residents.

Koon had no immediate detail on damage and evacuations in Santa Barbara. By Friday morning, the city's downtown was filled with dense, acrid smoke and people walked on the streets with towels and masks over their faces.

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

Officials in Santa Barbara and Montecito asked residents to conserve water, saying reservoirs have dropped to "dangerously low levels" because firefighters are tapping hydrants.

Bain, a 54-year-old electrician, said authorities ordered him to leave his home around midnight. He quickly collected his three cats, work files and computer and was out his house within five minutes. On his way out, Bain saw at least six mansions on a ridge above his home explode into flames.

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."

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 and fire was chewing mansions to the ground.

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

At Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college nestled amid wooded rolling hills, some 1,000 students were caught off-guard by the rapidly moving flames.

"It came pretty fast," said Tyler Rollema, a 19-year-old sophomore who was eating dinner in the cafeteria when students were told to head to the gym. "We came out and it was just blazing."

Flames chewed through a eucalyptus grove on the 135-acre campus and destroyed several buildings housing the physics and psychology departments, at least three dormitories and about a dozen 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."

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

Beth Lazor, 18, said she was in her dorm when the 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."

The fire was fanned by evening winds known locally as "sundowners," which gusted up to 70 mph from land to sea. Around sunset, winds shift from the normal onshore flow of cool, moist sea breezes and push downhill from the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The winds weakened overnight, with gusts reaching from 17 to 25 mph, said Jamie Meier, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Conditions were forecast to improve Friday for firefighters on the lines but remain warm and dry, she said.

The fire temporarily knocked out power to more than 20,000 homes in Santa Barbara, Southern California Edison spokesman Paul Klein said. The city has a population of about 90,000.

Montecito, a quiet community known for its Mediterranean-like climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities like Winfrey, who owns a 42-acre estate there. The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch is where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy spent their honeymoon in 1953.

Montecito suffered 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.

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