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Bonfire party caused Montecito fire

November 18, 2008 |  4:39 pm

The fire that destroyed scores of homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara was caused by a group of young people who had built a bonfire, authorities said today.

A group of 10 young men and women described by authorities as locals went to the Tea house, an abandoned mansion, on Wednesday night for a bonfire party. They told Santa Barbara County sheriff's investigators that they had put the fire out before they left that night. But authorities believe the fire continued to smolder through Thursday before breaking out into fire when winds swept in Thursday afternoon.

At this time, it does not appear to be malicious, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Officials described the group that started the fire as "college students," but didn't identify them further.

The fire broke out near Westmont College, but school officials say there's no indication that Westmont students were involved.

"We have been working closely and cooperating fully with fire officials, and at no point has anyone said that any of our students have been implicated," said Nancy Phinney, director of public relations for the college.

Asked whether the Teahouse property was a student hangout, she said that dating back to at least the 1960s, "Westmont students have known about that area....It's very near our campus."

Firefighters have achieved 95% containment of the 1,940-acre Tea fire, which damaged or destroyed 219 residences.

Last year, officials arrested several people who allegedly started a bonfire in some caves above Corral Canyon in Malibu, where flames burned dozens of homes.

—Catherine Saillant