Thousands flee Santa Barbara bushfires

8 May 2009

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USA — Flames are reflected in the swimming pool of a luxury mansion as it burns down in the hills above Santa Barbara.

Thousands of Californians were forced to flee their homes yesterday as wind-driven bushfires threatened the millionaires’ resort.

State governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County as more than 1,300 firefighters and special helicopters battled to keep the wildfire away from residential areas. The fire, which started in dry brush on Tuesday but was whipped up overnight by strong winds, is being investigated as arson.

At least 20 homes have been destroyed and more than 500 acres around the picturesque coastal town torched. Officials ordered the compulsory evacuation of 13,000 people as the flames swept across the tinder-dry landscape, leaving behind smouldering, burned-out husks where multi-million-dollar mansions once stood.

Three firefighters were injured when they were engulfed in flames trying to protect a home. County fire spokesman David Sadecki said: “We are in a state of extreme emergency. We’re running very, very thin.”

Attempts to tame the blaze were hampered by temperatures of over 100F (38C) and 50mph winds. Last November a similar event destroyed 200 homes in the area. In 2007 eight people died and more than 640,000 were displaced in some of the worst fires in the state’s history.

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