California fire forces 30,000 to flee, burns 75 homes

SANTA BARBARA, California Fri May 8, 2009 3:25pm EDT

1 of 36. A car that burned during the Jesusita fire is pictured in Santa Barbara, California May 7, 2009. 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.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) - A stubborn brush fire that consumed 75 foothill homes above the California coastal town of Santa Barbara raged with renewed ferocity for a fourth day on Friday, forcing at least 30,000 people to flee as it advanced on the city and two nearby communities.

The conflagration, marking the fourth wildfire to strike the affluent, picturesque Santa Barbara area in two years, charred some 3,500 acres by daybreak after a night of hot, dry erratic winds that drove flames across a highway and through more homes.

As of Friday morning, more than 30,000 area residents were ordered to leave their homes and about 23,000 others were warned to be ready to flee at a moment's notice, county officials said. That amounts to over half of the population of Santa Barbara, located 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

"Literally, last night, all hell broke loose," city Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio told reporters. "We saw the fire spread laterally across the top of the city and the fire front extend to almost 5 miles now."

He said fire crews fought a heroic battle to keep the blaze from pushing southward through a key park and into the city proper while other teams scrambled to put out roof fires at the edge of town.

The evacuation area was expanded overnight as the eastern and western flanks advanced on the neighboring communities of Montecito and Goleta.

"Right now, if you are not evacuated in the Santa Barbara area, you are sheltering evacuees," DiMizio said. "This has affected the entire community."

'UP IN FLAMES'

A handful of homeowners defied evacuation warnings to make their own last stand against the flames.

"We were on top of the hill, and the fire started coming back, and just hit us like no tomorrow," one resident, Rich Hackman, told KCBS-TV news shortly after trying to help friends save homes on one ridge overnight. "About two minutes ago, we watched my buddy's parents' home go up in flames."

State fire officials reported that an estimated 75 homes have been lost since the fire erupted on Tuesday above the city and spread into hillside enclaves of multimillion-dollar mansions. Another 3,500 homes and about 100 businesses remained in immediate jeopardy, authorities said.

No civilian casualties have been reported so far, but the blaze has injured 11 firefighters, three of them hospitalized with serious burns and smoke inhalation on Wednesday.

Firefighters managed to establish a containment line around 10 percent of the fire on Thursday, as winds calmed down during the day, but intermittently strong gusts blowing in from the desert were expected to remain a factor into Saturday.

Joe Waterman, the state fire commander on the scene, said he expected the force of 2,300 firefighters to get some help later on Friday from the state's specially equipped water-dropping DC-10 jet. Firefighters' aerial arsenal already includes several smaller planes and some 15 helicopters.

The area's last major brush fire, in November, destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and nearby communities. That blaze was blamed on a bonfire started by local students. The latest fire remains under investigation.

(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Mary Milliken and Will Dunham)

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