A wind-whipped brush fire made a destructive march Wednesday through the hills of Santa Barbara, destroying at least 20 structures and likely many more, authorities said.
The fire burned through lush green canyons dotted with expensive homes. The job of roughly 900 firefighters was hampered by poor access to the fire area, officials said, as well as winds of up to 50 mph and thick brush that hadnt burned in half a century.
“We are in a state of extreme emergency,” said David Sadecki, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “We’re running very, very thin.”
By sunset, the winds were calming somewhat, but TV footage showed numerous homes still burning. According to TV reporters at the scene, the leading edge of the fire was moving east toward areas burned in last year’s Tea fire in Montecito.
Two firefighters were trapped in a house that caught on fire and suffered serious burns, according to the Santa Barbara News-Press.
For part of the evening, the fire was burning toward downtown Santa Barbara, and residents and businesses there were told they might need to evacuate if the flames got close.
Santa Barbara Mayor Pro Tem Dale Francisco told KABC-TV Channel 7 that the fire so far has stayed above Foothill Road. That’s crucial because if the fire jumps the road, it would have a clear path into the densely populated central Santa Barbara area, he said.
When these winds are blowing hard enough, nothing can stop it, Francisco said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County.
Smoke was so thick that firefighters refrained from estimating the number of acres that had been scorched.
Because of heavy winds, Sadecki said, some firefighters were pulled back from the brush and instead assigned to protecting homes. Some were subsequently returned to the front lines. Helicopters and aircraft also were temporarily grounded.
“We anticipated a wind event and we certainly got it,” he said.
Ventura County firefighter Mike Moore said his crew had been stationed at the Santa Barbara County Fairgrounds when they got a call about 3 p.m. to head for Las Canoas Road. He said the fire was jumping around because of the strong winds. He said his team saved three houses.
At one home, there were leaves burning on the ground but because we there we were able to save it, he said. Its just an aggressive attack on multiple lines.
Moore said firefighters chose homes with good brush clearance because there was a better chance they could be saved.
We were chasing the fire around the canyon and saved the ones we could, he said. There was an intense firefight for about two hours with huge columns of smoke rising in the air.
At a Red Cross shelter set up at Dos Pueblos High School, dozens of evacuees were milling around, dining on pasta and barbecued chicken, stretched out on cots in the gymnasium, or watching big-screen TVs.
Claudia Riemer was focused on smoky images of destruction in the fire zone.
Im looking for my grandmother, she said. Ive been looking for her everywhere. Im very concerned.
Riemers 82-year-old grandmother, Enid Pike, lost her husband to brain cancer six weeks ago. After Tuesdays evacuations, Riemer talked to a sheriff’s deputy into accompanying her to the elderly womans house.
She wasnt there, Riemer said. The dog was there. The cars were there. But she wasnt around. I hope a neighbor came and got her. She cant go through this alone.
The wind changes prompted authorities to double the size of the mandatory evacuation area. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said more than 12,000 reverse-911 calls had been made to residents either telling them to leave or warning them that they might have to.
The fire broke out Tuesday and spread through brush at elevations above the city. As many as 2,000 homes were threatened and 1,200 homes were ordered evacuated late Tuesday afternoon. The fire burned through areas where more than 200 homes were destroyed by a blaze in November.
Still, for most of Tuesday and early Wednesday, the fire seemed relatively tame. About 196 acres were reported burned by midday Wednesday.
Notorious winds known as sundowners, typical for Santa Barbara this time of year, whipped west down through passes and canyons above the city late Wednesday afternoon.
The fire leaped into nearby residential areas in the Mission Canyon area, and had charred as many as a dozen homes late Wednesday afternoon.
Mission Canyon is a dense, upscale neighborhood with winding roads and thick vegetation which some residents compared to the Oakland hills that were consumed by flames in 1989.
Before the flare-up, some residents refused to budge.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin had warned that the forecast was worsening and urged evacuees not to be tempted to return. He said those in unevacuated neighborhoods near the fire should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Please be ready to go, he said at a noon news conference.
By the afternoon, the evacuation orders had been sent.