California fire burns unchecked, homes destroyed

SANTA BARBARA, California Thu May 7, 2009 5:52pm EDT

1 of 32. A firefighter sprays water on the rubble of a house that burned during the Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara, California May 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) - A wildfire that has destroyed dozens of multimillion-dollar homes and injured 10 firefighters burned unchecked through the central California foothills at the edge of Santa Barbara for a third day on Thursday.

Already 13,500 people have fled their homes in the hillsides surrounding seaside Santa Barbara, as 1,400 firefighters fought the fire, which was being investigated as an arson.

By mid-afternoon on Thursday, the so-called Jesusita fire had charred an estimated 1,300 acres, authorities said, and crews contending with nearly 100-degree F (38 C) temperatures and hot, dry Santa Ana winds made little headway in controlling the flames.

Authorities were concerned that the flames were edging toward the more populated downtown area and were keeping a wary eye on the winds, which typically pick up at sundown.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has spent recent days promoting wildfire safety throughout the state, visited the site of the first major fire of the year and said dozens of homes have been destroyed.

Another 3,500 remained threatened and authorities ordered 13,500 people to evacuate their homes, he said. A few homeowners ignored warnings to flee and stayed behind in a bid to help save their houses and belongings.

"I THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO DIE"

"I didn't want to lose my home. It's that simple," homeowner Albert Lindemann told KTLA-TV news, adding that his house ultimately was saved by firefighters who arrived just in time.

"I thought we were going to die," he said. "Until I started seeing those firemen coming in there, I didn't think any human being could be out there."

The Los Angeles Times reported that search and rescue teams were able to save a group of middle-school students who had been camping in the backcountry and found themselves cut off by the fire.

Authorities said rugged terrain, thick brush and gale-force winds made it difficult to gain an upper hand on the blaze. Winds died down overnight, allowing an aerial assault by water-dropping helicopters to continue round-the-clock.

As of Thursday, 10 firefighters have been injured, including three whose engine was overrun by flames on Wednesday while they struggled to save a home. The three men were reported to be in serious condition at a Los Angeles burn center but expected to recover.

Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County on Wednesday, a move that frees up additional funds and equipment. The firefighting force also was beefed up overnight, growing from more than 900 personnel to about 1,400, with additional helicopters and airplanes joining the battle.

In southern Arizona, fire teams said they were working to contain a blaze that torched three homes and burned 4,000 acres of mountainous grass and woodlands southeast of Tucson in recent days.

"The fire is not advancing," Jonetta Holt, a spokeswoman for the incident management team said of the blaze near the city of Sierra Vista. "We have a line around it and we are working to secure it."

In November, more than 200 homes were destroyed in Santa Barbara and the surrounding communities in a brush fire that was blamed on a bonfire started by local students.

(Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman)

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