Wildfire rages in California celebrity enclave

Wildfire rages in California celebrity enclave

15 November 2008

published by www.reuters.com

USA — A brush fire ravaged the hills above Southern California’s upscale Santa Barbara coast for a second night on Friday after roaring through the celebrity enclave of Montecito, injuring at least 13 people and leveling more than 100 homes.

Those reported to have lost houses in the community dubbed “America’s Riviera” included actor Christopher Lloyd, best known as the zany scientist in the “Back to the Future” movies. Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and actor Rob Lowe said their properties were spared for the time being.

No deaths were reported from the fire, but a 98-year-old man died shortly after being evacuated to a nearby hotel, authorities said.

“We are not certain whether or not it was directly connected to the incident,” one official said.

The fire erupted on Thursday evening and scorched about 1,500 acres by Friday morning, devouring mansions and luxury estates tucked into the canyons and foothills of the hamlet 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Large swaths of the picturesque community, one of the nation’s priciest, were transformed into charred, gray landscapes where gates and walls surrounded piles of rubble — all that remained of fire-ravaged multimillion-dollar houses.

Residents of some 5,500 homes were evacuated in Montecito, the neighboring city of Santa Barbara and surrounding areas.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County , putting additional state resources at the disposal of local fire departments.


Firefighters on Thursday night were largely powerless as gusts howling at 70 mph fanned the flames in the foothills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Winds died down after sunrise and remained calm through the day on Friday, giving fire crews a chance to gain some ground.

At nightfall, firefighters braced for a resurgence of “sundowner” winds that often sweep in from over the Santa Ynez Mountains after dusk, but storm-force winds like those of Thursday night were not forecast to reappear.

“It’s totally up to Mother Nature. If she decides to raise the miles per hour of those winds, than we could be in trouble,” said Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum.

If winds remain in a normal range, she added, “Than I think we will have a much better handle on it.”

Winfrey, the town’s best-known resident, opened her Chicago-based show talking about the fire and showing live TV news footage of the blaze, which she said was burning “about 2 miles from my house.”

Lowe, a neighbor of Winfrey, who stars on the TV drama “Brothers & Sisters,” said he and his son fled their home after his wife called them to warn: “Montecito’s on fire. Get out!”

“We got in the car and pulled out of the driveway and the entire mountain behind us was (in) flames 200 feet high, shooting into the air,” Lowe told Winfrey in a telephone interview. “It was absolutely Armageddon.”

Many others were not as lucky as Lowe and Winfrey.

Rosie Neeley, 31, fled with her parents before their house was consumed by fire overnight. “When we saw the flames coming down the canyon, we knew it was too late.” she said.

Longtime residents Cheryl and Gary Jensen, both 59, said they, too, were first alerted to danger by a phone call and fled as flames neared. They returned on Friday to find their $2 million home leveled, a half-melted, blackened hulk of their refrigerator still visible in the remains of their kitchen.

“It’s all dust now,” Cheryl Jensen said as she tearfully peered down at the smoldering ruins.

A caretaker for Lloyd’s $11 million adobe estate “fled for his life” in the firestorm on Thursday night, the Los Angeles Times’ real estate columnist reported, quoting the actor’s property manager. She said the home was “at least partially burned, if not totally.” The actor was away at the time.

Santa Barbara Fire Chief Ron Prince said “well over 100 homes” had been lost in the blaze since Thursday night.

Among the 13 people reported injured, 10 suffered from smoke inhalation and three from burns, the county’s emergency operations center said in a statement. Two of the burn injuries were described as serious.

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