Residents flee as flames approach wealthy California enclave

Residents piled into cars and fled, turning downtown Santa Barbara into "a ghost town" as surging winds drove one of the biggest fires in California's history toward the city and the nearby wealthy enclave of Montecito last night.

The mandatory evacuations around Montecito and neighbouring Summerland came as winds that had eased a day earlier roared back at around 30mph, with gusts to about 60mph.

Firefighters sprayed water on to hot spots sparked by wind-blown embers. Firefighters also drove to the historic San Ysidro Ranch in yellow fire trucks as heavy smoke rose from the coastal hills, blotting out the 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," Ms Schoop-Rutten said. "It's very, very eerie."

The 404-square-mile 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," fire spokesman Jude 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 yesterday morning as the fire approached homes.

"The worst was the smoke," Mr 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 morning passed with no homes damaged or destroyed as firefighters dealt with "extreme and erratic" fire behavior, Mr Olivas said.

Our house aprox 7:30 am today. Pray for Santa Barbara.

A post shared by Rob Lowe (@robloweofficial) on

There was a spot of good news down the coast. Emergency officials announced that the same fire that was burning about 25 miles south-east of Montecito was 40% 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."

Mr Olivas said 400 fire engines were sent to protect homes in the area. The fire is now the third-largest in California history. It has burned more than 700 homes and killed a state firefighter.

Cory Iverson, 32, died Thursday from burns and smoke inhalation, according to autopsy results announced on Saturday.

Since the fire began on December 4, about 95,000 people have been placed under mandatory evacuation. The evacuation zone near Santa Barbara yesterday was 17 miles long and up to five miles wide and the new expansion encompassed about 3,300 people.

- AP


KEYWORDS: California

 

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