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Archive for Saturday, May 9, 2009

30,000 people ordered to flee California wildfire

May 9, 2009

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A U.S. Forest Service fire engine is in place on Thursday at a home that is threatened by an approaching wildfire in Santa Barbara, Calif.

A U.S. Forest Service fire engine is in place on Thursday at a home that is threatened by an approaching wildfire in Santa Barbara, Calif.

— Turning the horizon a lurid orange and raining embers on roofs as it advanced, a raging wildfire that has destroyed scores of homes in the hills menaced this celebrity enclave and other coastal towns Friday, and the number of people ordered to flee climbed to 30,000.

Authorities warned an additional 23,000 to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Columns of smoke rose off the Santa Ynez Mountains as the 4-day-old blaze — fanned by “sundowner” winds that sweep down the slopes in the evening — blew up from 2,700 acres to 8,600, creating a firefighting front five miles long.

“It’s crazy. The whole mountain looked like an inferno,” said Maria Martinez, 50, who with her fiance hurriedly left her home in San Marcos Pass, on the edge of Santa Barbara. The couple went to an evacuation center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

An unknown number of homes were destroyed in the blowup that began Thursday night, in addition to the estimated 75 houses that burned the night before on the ridges and in the canyons above Santa Barbara.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

The number of people ordered to evacuate rose to 30,500 from 12,000 the night before as the blaze pushed west toward neighboring Goleta and east toward well-to-do Montecito.

“Literally last night, all hell broke loose,” Santa Barbara Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said Friday morning, recounting firefighters’ efforts to put out roof fires and keep flames out of his section of the city.

The eight-member Wasjutin family arrived at the university campus in three cars and a trailer packed with four dogs, eight baby chickens, two cockatiels, an iguana, a rat named Cutie and an African spur tortoise. They fled their 40-acre San Marcos Pass property after watching the flames grow closer. They left three horses and three hens behind.

“We drove down through fire on both sides,” said Silvia Wasjutin, 48, a speech pathologist.

In a scene of strange contrasts, students bicycled to classes and midterms as ash fell on campus, and boats bobbed in Santa Barbara’s harbor as smoke rose from the mountains above town.

The Santa Barbara area has long been a favorite of celebrities. Oprah Winfrey has an estate in Montecito, where Charlie Chaplin’s old seaside escape, the Montecito Inn, has stood since 1928. A ranch in the mountains that Ronald and Nancy Reagan bought became his Western retreat during his presidency.

More than 2,300 firefighters battled the blaze, using at least 246 engines, 14 air tankers and 15 helicopters. A DC-10 jumbo jet tanker capable of dumping huge loads of retardant began making runs on the fire in the afternoon.

The cause of the blaze, which broke out Tuesday, remained under investigation.

Evacuation shelters were set up, and hotels offered deals to evacuees.

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