Flames threaten rich Calif. en­clave as res­i­dents flee

The Standard Journal - - NATIONAL -

MONTECITO, Calif. — Fire­fight­ers try­ing to pre­vent one of the big­gest fires in Cal­i­for­nia’s history from con­sum­ing homes in Santa Bar­bara and the nearby wealthy en­clave of Montecito were hop­ing less pow­er­ful winds would help them af­ter they man­aged to stop it from burn­ing thou­sands of res­i­dences.

Af­ter winds roared at around 30 mph (48 kph), with gusts to about 60 mph ( 97 kph) on Satur­day, they were ex­pected to ease Sun­day with gusts of up to 35 mph on Sun­day.

But even the lower in­ten­sity winds are still ex­tremely dan­ger­ous, said fire spokesman Jude Oli­vas.

The fire that started 12 days ago has burned at least 700 homes and killed a fire­fighter, but Oli­vas said fire­fight­ers saved thou­sands of homes from be­ing de­stroyed on Satur­day.

The winds “will go down a lit­tle bit, hope­fully we can do the same job (Sun­day) that we did to­day,” he said.

Ear­lier Satur­day, res­i­dents piled into cars and fled on Satur­day, turn­ing down­town Santa Bar­bara into what one res­i­dent called “a ghost town.”

There were mandatory evac­u­a­tions around Montecito and neigh­bor­ing Sum­mer­land came as fire­fight­ers sprayed wa­ter onto hot spots sparked by wind-blown em­bers. They also drove to the his­toric San Ysidro Ranch in yel­low firetrucks as heavy smoke rose from the coastal hills, blot­ting out blue skies.

A por­tion of Santa Bar­bara was un­der mandatory evac­u­a­tion. At the city’s zoo, work­ers be­gan putting some an­i­mals into crates and ken­nels, to ready them for pos­si­ble evac­u­a­tion.

In down­town Santa Bar­bara, Maya Schoop-Rut­ten, owner of Choco- late Maya, said she saw t hrough t he win­dow of her choco­late shop smoke sud­denly ap­pear af­ter strong winds blew through.

“It was ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble,” s he s aid. “There was a huge mush­room of smoke that hap­pened in just a mat­ter of a few min­utes.”

Restau­rants and small stores on nor­mally bustling State Street were shut­tered.

“It’s a ghost town. Ev­ery­thing is shut down,” Schoop-Rut­ten said. “It’s very, very eerie.”

The north­bound lanes of U.S. High­way 101, com­ing up the coast from Los An­ge­les, were closed for a few hours south of Santa Bar­bara, with cars stopped on the free­way.

The 418- square- mile ( 1,083- square- kilo­me­ter) blaze called the Thomas fire was mov­ing rapidly west­ward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the en­clave boasts the man­sions of Oprah Win­frey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebri­ties.

“It is right above the homes,” Oli­vas said.

Win­frey ex­pressed her dis­may on her Twit­ter ac­count.

“Still pray­ing for our lit­tle town. Winds picked up this morn­ing cre­at­ing a per­fect storm of bad for fire­fight­ers,” Win­frey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.

Pierre Henry, owner of the Bree’osh Bak­ery in Montecito, said he got a text to evac­u­ate Satur­day morn­ing as the fire ap­proached homes.

“The worst was the smoke,” Henry said. “You couldn’t breathe at all and it be­came worse when the wind started. All the ashes and the dust on the street were in the air. It was very, very fright­en­ing.”

The day passed with no homes dam­aged or de­stroyed as fire­fight­ers dealt with “ex­treme and er­ratic” fire be­hav­ior, Oli­vas said.

Schoop-Rut­ten said the fire is tak­ing an eco­nomic toll, even if it doesn’t in­vade the city.

“It’s tragic for busi­nesses at this time of the year be­cause this is when we make the money,” she said. “Imag­ine all the restau­rants, all the Christ­mas par­ties have been can­celled. Peo­ple lost a ton of rev­enue in the past few days.”

There was a spot of good news down t he coast. Emer­gency of­fi­cials an­nounced that the same fire that was burn­ing about 25 miles (40 kilo­me­ters) south­east of Montecito was 40 per­cent con­tained. Evac­u­a­tion or­ders for the city of Ven­tura were lifted.

As the northerly “sun­downer” wind was driv­ing the fire south and west, fire­fight­ers could only hope it would calm back down.

“When the sun­down­ers sur­face in that area and the fire starts run­ning down slopes, you are not go­ing to stop it,” Mark Brown, of the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, told a news con­fer­ence. “And we are not go­ing to stand in front of it and put fire­fight­ers in un­ten­able sit­u­a­tions.”

Oli­vas said 400 fire en­gines were sent to pro­tect homes in the area. The fire is now the third-largest in Cal­i­for­nia history.

The fire­fighter who was killed, Cory Iver­son, 32, died of burns and smoke in­hala­tion, ac­cord­ing to au­topsy re­sults an­nounced Satur­day.

Since the fire be­gan on Dec. 4, about 95,000 peo­ple have been placed un­der mandatory evac­u­a­tion. The evac­u­a­tion zone near Santa Bar­bara on Satur­day was 17 miles (27 kilo­me­ters) long and up to 5 miles (8 kilo­me­ters) wide and the new ex­pan­sion en­com­passed about 3,300 peo­ple.

The Santa Bar­bara Zoo has about 150 species of an­i­mals, in­clud­ing a pair of Amur leop­ards, a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species. Work­ers be­gan putting vul­tures, Cal­i­for­nia con­dors and some smaller an­i­mals into crates and ken­nels in case the fire ap­proached.

“Ev­ery­thing is fine right now. The wind has shifted in our fa­vor,” spokesman Dean Noble said. “How­ever, we just don’t want to get caught by some­thing un­ex­pected.”

Other zoos are ready to ac­cept the evac­u­ated an­i­mals, he said. The Fresno zoo has an incubator avail­able for a baby giant anteater, and the San Diego zoo is pre­pared to ac­cept the Amur leop­ards and other cats, Noble said.

Mike Elia­son / Santa Bar­bara County Fire De­part­ment via AP

In this photo pro­vided by the Santa Bar­bara County Fire De­part­ment, flames ad­vance to­wards a large fire break near homes along Gi­bral­tar Road north of Santa Bar­bara, Calif.

Chris Carl­son / AP

Fire­fight­ers from Kern County, Calif., work to put out hot spots dur­ing a wild­fire Satur­day.

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