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Fire hits upscale California homes

Fri., Nov. 14, 2008, midnight

MONTECITO, Calif. – A fast-moving brush fire driven by 50- to 70-mph winds erupted Thursday night in the hills above coastal Montecito in Santa Barbara County, burning at least 300 acres and forcing evacuations of luxury neighborhoods and destroying dozens of homes, authorities said.

The fire broke out about 6 p.m. in an area that is home to film stars and other wealthy residents, and quickly overwhelmed firefighters with its speed.

“I have so many concerns,” said Terry McElwee, with the Montecito Fire Department. “It’s just moving so fast right now. … We’re having trouble rounding up enough resources.”

Two helicopters with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were dropping water where they could gain access as firefighters struggled to get engines and equipment to threatened structures. Nevertheless, the fire continued to press southwest, toward Santa Barbara.

Fire departments from all over the region were battling the blaze, called the Tea Fire, along with the California Department of Forestry and other agencies, including Los Angeles county and city departments. Mandatory evacuations were in effect.

Geri Ventura, a spokeswoman for the Montecito Fire Department, said she did not know how many homes had been lost, but from televised aerial views, it appeared that dozens of homes were being consumed.

Although two evacuation centers were opened, many Montecito residents chose to wait out the fire at local hotels – some of which were full – or at friends’ homes.

Bobby Shand stopped at the Holiday Inn in Carpinteria, about five miles away, looking in vain for a room for himself and his family. He had just received word that two of his friends’ homes had been destroyed, but he didn’t yet know the fate of his own.

Among the celebrities with homes in the area are Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe.


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