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Santa Barbara fire: Flames grow, more homes lost [Updated]

May 8, 2009 |  5:46 am

A destructive fire in the hills of Santa Barbara flared up early this morning, prompting officials to evacuate thousands more residents.

The fire has burned more than 2,800 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. Television footage showed several new structures burning this morning, and 30,000 people were under evacuation orders.

Firefighters had hoped the worst was over, but heavy winds picked up overnight and pushed the flames to the south and west. The National Weather Service clocked wind gusts of 60 mph in Montecito Hills overnight, and forecasters warned of heavy winds through this morning.

An evacuation shelter in Goleta was filled to capacity. Officials said more evacuations were possible in the Montecito area.

[Updated at 8:20 a.m.: Santa Barbara Acting Fire Chief Andy DiMizio, said firefighters made a stand last night on Foothill Road, working successfully to keep the fire from entering the central section of Santa Barbara.

"The fire was threatening the city directly," he said. "Last night, all hell broke loose."

Weather conditions will remain hot and windy today, officials said. Winds were dying down this morning, but officials said they were expect to pick up again in the afternoon and evening.]

About 2,300 firefighters, as well as 246 engines, 10 air tankers and 15 helicopters, were fighting the fire. The cause remained unknown.

On Thursday morning, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, meeting with fire officials, called the blaze "a great challenge" and promised money for fighting the fire despite a state budget crisis.

"We are 100% behind the people of Santa Barbara," he said.

In Mission Canyon, the century-old Gane House at the 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was engulfed in flames, leaving little more than three brick chimneys standing.

"We're very heartbroken," said Nancy Johnson, the garden's vice president of marketing and government relations. "We were hoping to restore it to its grandeur."

Lost inside were all the gardening tools, horticultural materials, the metal shop that made tags to identify plants, the overstock of books published by the garden, and the office contents and computers of the head gardener and facilities maintenance man, Johnson said. Biofuel gardening trucks parked outside also appear to have been destroyed.

On Wednesday, a Santa Barbara County sheriff's search-and-rescue team saved 13 Ojai seventh- and eighth-graders and their teacher hiking in the backcountry and trapped by the fire, said Sheriff Bill Brown.

A helicopter, using night-vision equipment, also located three hikers reported missing in the hills, Brown said.

Residents who remained in their homes when the fire flared up Wednesday described walls of fire and blasts of embers stirred by ferocious winds.

Walter Hildbrand was jubilant Thursday. It was his mother's 90th birthday, and the flames hadn't touched her house on leafy Las Canoas Road.

Hildbrand, a 69-year-old former Santa Barbara city firefighter, also saved his own home with a garden hose.

"I came up the driveway and saw this wall of flames on the hillside behind the house and just kept on spraying," he said.

Albert Lindenmann said he and his wife watched the fire scorch the mountainside below the home they had owned for more than 40 years. They stayed and spread a fire-blocking gel.

"We just thought we could defend ourselves," said Lindenmann, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara. "Our house didn't catch on fire. I think we did everything right."

Howard Schiffer was told that his home on Orange Grove Avenue was destroyed.

Schiffer said he spent last week in a Kenyan refugee camp, distributing nutritional supplements for a group he started in 1994 called Vitamin Angels Alliance.

"These people had nothing at all," he said. "They had to deal with losing their homes to violence and hate, which, I believe, is tougher than losing one to a natural disaster. We're OK."

-- Ann M. Simmons 

Interactive: Place cursor on the image below to explore the scene as Paso Robles firefighters battle flames threatening homes on Debra Drive north of Santa Barbara late Thursday night.

Related:

Firemap140 Map: The Times is tracking the path of the Jesusita fire on a Google map. 
Latest: Fire consumes more homes
Feature: In the eye of the firestorm
Twitter: For live updates throughout the day, follow us @latimescitydesk or view full Twitter search stream.


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