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'It looks like a moonscape,' resident says of fire zone

May 6, 2009 |  7:06 pm

Tim Steele thought they had it made. The president of the Mission Canyon Assn. in the hills above Santa Barbara had watched with trepidation Tuesday as a brush fire neared his neighborhood.

But then Wednesday morning, as the weather calmed, the fire seemed to submit. Firefighters even recalculated the burned acreage to be less than first estimated. However, as on every other day this week, high winds kicked up in the afternoon.

From a municipal golf course, Steele said, he watched as the community where he’d lived for 13 years burned. The upper part of the area “looks like a moonscape,” he said in a phone interview. “I thought we had this one under control. I underestimated Mother Nature.” Steele expected that his house, a short distance from a burning ridge, was ashes by now.

The upscale community of about 1,400 acres resembles the Oakland Hills, where hundreds of homes burned to the ground in 1989. “Trees just abound, brush grows till it’s 15, 20 feet tall, yet we get these high winds,” Steele said. So the association has made brush clearance and fire prevention a top priority, he said.

The group has sponsored fire drills and written an evacuation plan. On Tuesday, the association had brought in 250 goats to eat away the vegetation. The goats were evacuated unharmed once the fire ignited that afternoon. Even these and other measures proved no match for the increasingly wild fire, spurred by Sundowner winds. In past blazes, Steele has found embers blown all the way to his office in downtown Santa Barbara.

“The potential of the fire leapfrogging and catching block after block is very strong,” he said. Steele and his girlfriend had been kept from returning home Tuesday afternoon and thus weren’t able to retrieve anything from the house they now fear lost.

“All we have to do is hope that nobody is hurt or killed in this fire,” Steele said. “Then once it’s all cleared up we may be able to see some of these comfort zones we cleared away allowed people to evacuate.”

--Sam Quinones