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Huge Santa Barbara County wildfire caused by marijuana farm; suspects at large in forest

August 16, 2009 |  8:26 am

A fire that has burned more than 75,000 acres in Santa Barbara County over the last week was started in an illegal marijuana growing area operated by a Mexican drug organization, authorities said.

Authorities said they confirmed that the blaze, which is burning out of control, started in a cooking area of the pot farm. They believe those responsible are still in the forest area trying leave the forest by foot. 

"The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Narcotics Unit has confirmed that the camp at the origin of the fire was an illegal marijuana operation believed to be run by a Mexican national drug organization," according to a statement from the Los Padres National Forest. "The Narcotics Unit has been working in the area within the last month eradicating other nearby marijuana cultivation sites." 

The location of those who ran the pot farm isn't known, but forest officials warn "not to approach anyone who looks suspicious but to instead contact the nearest law enforcement agency."

The fire, known as the La Brea fire, is now 25% contained. Vicki Collins, a fire information spokeswoman at Los Padres, said that although the La Brea fire was only 10% contained by Friday night, firefighters successfully charred some lines in front of the fire in the Tepusquet Canyon area, depriving the blaze of new fuel. 

Since the fire started Aug. 8, about 234 residences have been evacuated. Collins said if firefighting efforts continue to be successful, residents might be able to get back into their homes within a couple of days. Progress has been slow on this fire because of the low humidity, 90-degree temperatures and remote terrain. 

She said they still have no crews on the ground in some wilderness areas, such as the Sisquoc River area.

 “We have a lot of work ahead of us yet, though things are looking fairly good on a couple flanks of this fire,” Collins said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger met with firefighters in the Santa Cruz Mountains who have been battling the Lockheed fire. 

That blaze, which started Wednesday, has burned nearly 7,000 acres. By this morning, the fire was 30% contained, officials said. About 2,400 people have been evacuated in areas including Swanton and Bonny Doon.

 “I want the people here in these communities to know that we will do everything in our power in order to save properties, to save lives and to save their memories,” Schwarzenegger said. “The important thing is also to follow the evacuation orders.” Schwarzenegger said there are 11 fires currently burning across California. He defended the state's investment in fire resources even though it is in a budget crisis. 

Del Walters, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection director who spoke at the news conference with the governor, said he worried that the incoming winds and high temperatures in Northern California could worsen the Lockheed fire and also the Corral fire in San Joaquin County. 

That fire has blackened about 15,000 acres and was 20% contained by this morning. 

-- Shelby Grad and Jia-Rui Chong