Flames threaten rich California enclave, residents flee

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 (56 kph) 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 neighbouring 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 Chocolate Maya, said she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear after strong winds blew through.

“It was absolutely incredible,” she said. “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-kilometre) 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 behaviour, 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 the coast. Emergency officials announced that the same fire that was burning about 25 miles (40 kilometres) southeast of Montecito was 40 per cent 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 kilometres) long and up to 5 miles (8 kilometres) 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 favour,” 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.

Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighbourhoods to the legions attacking it: about 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters.

The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $100 million.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Comments are closed

Just Posted

NHL says 5% of players have tested positive for COVID-19 at voluntary workouts

NEW YORK — The NHL says 35 players have tested positive for… Continue reading

Tories, NDP lay out demands as Liberals prepare to reveal state of economy

OTTAWA — Opposition parties have laid out their demands as the federal… Continue reading

Ford revives Bronco brand, aims at Jeep’s big off-road sales

DETROIT — When it comes to rugged vehicles that go off the… Continue reading

Trump-connected lobbyists reap windfall in federal virus aid

WASHINGTON — Forty lobbyists with ties to President Donald Trump helped clients… Continue reading

Alberta First Nation monitors hundreds for COVID-19 as it announces curfew

SIKSIKA NATION, Alta. — A First Nation in southern Alberta has implemented… Continue reading

QUIZ: A celebration of dogs

These are the dog days of summer. How much do you know about dogs?

Flood of people are expected to flee Hong Kong clampdown

“We will grant BNOs five years’ limited leave to remain (in the… Continue reading

Canadian Taylor Pendrith one shot back heading into final round

BERTHOUD, Colo. — Canadian Taylor Pendrith is in contention for his first… Continue reading

Five things to watch as Blue Jays open training camp in Toronto

Most MLB players are beginning their summer training camps Friday in preparation… Continue reading

Theatre star Nick Cordero dies at 41 after months of complications from COVID-19

TORONTO — Hamilton-raised theatre star Nick Cordero, who had legions of supporters… Continue reading

Spaghetti Western movie composer Ennio Morricone dead at 91

ROME — Ennio Morricone, the Oscar-winning Italian composer who created the coyote-howl… Continue reading

P.E.I. reports three new COVID-19 cases, including one seniors’ residence employee

CHARLOTETOWN, P.E.I. — Prince Edward Island reported new COVID-19 cases for the… Continue reading

Even pandemic can’t spoil July

July. Finally. It’s seems like the last three weird months have taken… Continue reading

‘You have to show up:’ NDP MP questions virtual attendance of Alberta Tories

NDP MP McPherson says she’s disappointed Tory MPs haven’t been participating in virtual meetings

Most Read