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.

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