Click Here to Subscribe For FREE SMS Alerts on Disaster Awareness

Refresher Training of CERT by FOCUS

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wind-whipped fire rips through Santa Barbara neighborhoods

fire overhead
Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times
Fire engulfs a home in the Mission Canyon area of Santa Barbara.
The blaze spreads in exclusive hillside communities of the city, consuming at least 20 houses.
By Catherine Saillant and Steve Chawkins
10:58 PM PDT, May 6, 2009
Reporting from Santa Barbara -- Afternoon winds stoked a day-old brush fire into an out-of-control blaze Wednesday in Santa Barbara, sending it hopscotching across exclusive canyon neighborhoods and leaving firefighters nearly powerless before its advance.

The airborne embers ignited multimillion-dollar homes on the ridgetops. Firefighters did not offer an exact count, but photographers in helicopters in the smoky skies estimated that at least 20 homes had been incinerated.

Related Content
By night, the fire had torched 500 acres and driven 8,000 people from their homes.

The job of about 900 firefighters, air tankers and helicopters was hampered by poor access to the mountainous terrain, officials said, as well as winds of up to 50 mph and dense brush that hadn't burned in half a century.

"We are in a state of extreme emergency," said David Sadecki, a Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman. "We're running very, very thin."

By 7:30 p.m., winds had begun to die down and firefighters gained some control, though they remained wary that winds could kick up again today and fuel the blaze.

The Jesusita fire, named for a nearby trail, is the city's third major wildfire in nine months.

The fire broke out Tuesday in wildlands and spread through brush north of the city. For most of Tuesday and early Wednesday, the fire seemed relatively tame.

Early Wednesday, firefighters even recalculated the burned acreage to be smaller than first estimated.

Then, about 3 p.m., notorious winds known as sundowners, typical for Santa Barbara this time of year, whipped down through passes and canyons above the city.

The fire leaped into nearby residential areas in Mission Canyon, where mansions are tucked along narrow, winding roads amid thick brush and tall trees -- an area resembling the Oakland hills that burned to the ground in 1991.

As the fire escalated, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County, freeing federal emergency funds.

Three firefighters from Ventura County sustained moderate burns or smoke inhalation. They were taken to Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks.

On Wednesday night, James Massie, 52, was at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, the command post for fire crews, where he had driven to find out whether his three-bedroom house at the top of Mission Canyon had survived.

Massie, who is an inventor, and his wife, a graphic artist, had planned to defend their house. But by mid-afternoon, he said, they watched flames as high as 100 feet march across the canyon toward them.

"The air was thick with smoke. You could barely breathe," he said, still dressed in the jeans, work shirt and flip-flops he had worn to battle the fire. "When the winds changed, all bets were off. The energy changed completely. Everything was moving very quickly and there was no guarantee we would live."

Massie said he and his wife left with some artwork, two cats and important documents. They did not learn whether their house was still standing.

The upper part of the neighborhood now "looks like a moonscape," Tim Steele, president of the Mission Canyon Assn., said in a phone interview from a nearby golf course where he was watching the fire.

"I thought we had this one under control," he said. "I underestimated Mother Nature."

The association has made brush clearance and fire prevention a top priority, Steele said, even bringing in 250 goats Tuesday to eat away vegetation. The goats were evacuated unharmed after the fire ignited.

But north Santa Barbara is where the city meets the wildlands.

"It doesn't matter what you do," Santa Barbara Mayor Pro Tem Dale Francisco told KABC-TV Channel 7. "When these winds are blowing hard enough, nothing can stop it."

On Las Canoas Road, George Quinn, 64, and his wife, Barbara, 63, sat in lawn chairs in front of their home Wednesday night, watching water-dropping helicopters circle and firefighters mop up along the heavily hit street.

Across the street, a house had burned to its foundation.

George Quinn, who was soaking wet and smoking a cigarette, had spent three hours using garden hoses to protect the house where he has lived since 1952. "I put everything out," he said. "The damn firefighters were no help."

Quinn said he had saved his house during the 1964 Coyote fire by lighting a backfire on the ridge behind his house.

This time, the couple watched the fire race over the same ridge where eucalyptus trees were growing. "Those trees up there just exploded," Barbara Quinn said. "We were calm . . . If you get hysterical, nothing happens."

George Quinn said he had started preparing for the fire Tuesday. He said he had sprayed water on his landscaping and cleared the perimeter around his house.

"If I drank alcohol, I would have a martini right now," Barbara Quinn said. "But I don't drink."

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Sadecki said that the afternoon winds were so fierce that some firefighters were pulled back from the brush and assigned to protect homes. Some later returned to the front lines. Helicopters and aircraft also were temporarily grounded.

As the afternoon proceeded, firefighters were forced to choose which houses to try to save.

Ventura County Firefighter Mike Moore said his crew saved three houses, choosing those with good brush clearance because there was a better chance they could be saved.

"We were chasing the fire around the canyon and saved the ones we could," Moore said. "There was an intense firefight for about two hours with huge columns of smoke rising in the air."

Along Mission Canyon Road, several homes burned to their foundations. The hillsides on both sides of the roadway were scorched and spot fires were scattered about.

But firefighters managed to save a group of homes at the top of the road.

The only sounds on the mostly deserted street were that of crackling trees burning and helicopters flying overhead. Every so often, another cluster of trees exploded into flames, sending plumes of dark smoke rising into the sky.

Utility workers were busy removing or repairing downed lines along the street.

At a Red Cross shelter set up at Dos Pueblos High School, dozens of evacuees milled about, eating pasta and barbecued chicken, stretching out on cots in the gymnasium, or watching big-screen TVs.

Al Hampton, 86, was thinking philosophically about his house in Mission Heights.

"I saw some young guys throwing discuses and doing the sort of things I used to do. And I realized it: I don't really give a damn if my house is gone!" he said in the accent of his native Australia.

Hampton, a retired chemist, said he could invest the insurance money or sell the land or live somewhere else, maybe with his daughter in Arizona or his son in Boston.

"It made me realize how narrowly I've been focusing on this house, on all the things I've acquired through my life," he said. "But I suddenly remembered I don't care about things. I care about people."

catherine.saillant @latimes.com

Chat: Google Talk: ways2invest Y! messenger: wilint
Contact Me: EbayFacebookYoutubeTwitter


Popular Posts

Slide Presentation


Enter a Youtube URL to download:

Powered by KeepHD.com
Custom Search

Daily Green News


blogger templates | Make Money Online