Firefighters overwhelmed by raging Calif. wildfire

Firefighters overwhelmed by raging Calif. wildfire

15 November 2008

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USA — Firefighters struggled Friday against an out-of-control wildfire that destroyed at least 100 homes in a wealthy, celebrity-studded enclave, flaring up so fast that it caught some terrified residents behind the automatic gates of their mansions.

Blistering winds gusting to 70 mph, dry brush and oil-rich eucalyptus trees helped turn an ordinary brush fire into an exploding inferno that quickly consumed rows of luxury homes and part of a Christian college campus where students spent the night in a gymnasium shelter, some praying and others sobbing.

“That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom,” said Bob McNall, 70, who with his son and grandson saved their home by hosing it down. “The whole sky was full of embers, there was nothing that they could do. It was just too much.”

A state of emergency was declared in Santa Barbara County and about 5,400 homes were evacuated in Montecito, which has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges and Oprah Winfrey, who owns a 42-acre estate.

Residents waited anxiously for word of their homes after fleeing with just a few minutes’ notice. One 91-year-old man said he left with just his glasses and his wallet.

Lowe said he fled with his children as fire engulfed the mountain and flames shot 200 feet in the air. The family stopped to check on neighbors and found them trapped behind their automatic car gate, which was stuck because the power was out. Lowe said he helped get the big gates open.

“Embers were falling. Wind was 70 miles an hour, easily, and it was just like Armageddon,” Lowe told KABC-TV. “You couldn’t hear yourself think.” Lowe said his house hadn’t burned.

More than 1,000 firefighters were trying to gain an edge on the blaze before the region’s famous “sundowner” winds — which roar down the mountains to the sea as the sun sets — picked up again, said Santa Barbara Fire Chief Ron Prince.

“Control of this fire is not even in sight,” Prince said.

Fueled by vast stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees — which exploded when lit — and decades of chaparral and other growth, the fire quickly spread to about 2,500 acres — nearly 4 square miles — by early Friday.

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

A 98-year-old man who was evacuated to a hotel died, but it wasn’t clear whether his death was directly related to the fire, Santa Barbara Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said Friday.

The fire destroyed the Mount Calvary Benedictine monastery and burned more than 80 homes to the ground, said Brown, who flew over the burn area about 120 miles north of Los Angeles early Friday. Many of the homes were in the winding streets around Westmont College.

At the Christian liberal arts school, 1,000 students were evacuated. About 300 spent the night on cots in the gym. Some stood in groups praying; others sobbed openly and comforted each other.

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 said.

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.”

Among those worried about their homes was talk show host Winfrey. During a taping Friday morning, she said the fire was about two miles from her house. Homes of her friends and neighbors were destroyed.

“It’s not a good morning for us,” she said. “Some of my friends left their homes with only their dogs last night as I was calling, ‘Are you all right? Are you all right?’ They said, ‘We have the dogs and the kids aren’t here, so we’re OK.'”

Evacuee Tom Bain relived the hellish scene after fleeing his home in five minutes with his three cats, some work files and a computer. On the way out, he saw at least six mansions on the ridge above his home explode in flames.

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

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 feared he lost his home in the hills above Santa Barbara.

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

Flames had licked at the home of Gwen Dandridge, 61, and her husband Joshua Schimel, 51, but it was still standing when they returned Friday morning — something the couple attributed to lots of weed-whacking to clear the brush around the home.

“We have a house! We have a house!” Dandridge shouted said as she first spied the home.

Montecito, a quiet community known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities.

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.

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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