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Brush fire destroys homes in Santa Barbara [Updated]

May 6, 2009 |  6:20 pm



A brush fire consumed homes and raged out of control in the hills above Santa Barbara today, fueled by dry, hot winds that are expected to continue into the night.


The fire burned through lush green canyons dotted with expensive homes, burning at least 12 structures and perhaps many more.


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 hadn’t burned in a half-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.''


Two firefighters were trapped in a house that caught on fire and suffered serious burns, according to the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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.


[Updated at 7:10 p.m.: 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 jumped 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,” he added.


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. After 7 p.m., the winds appeared to be dying down and the fire slowing down.


In addition, 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 assigned to protecting homes instead. 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.


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 Wednesday at midday.


The 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.


—Steve Chawkins, Rong-Gong Lin II and Sam Quinones


Photo: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times