MONTECITO, Calif. – A respite from fierce “sundowner” winds gave firefighters in Santa Barbara County a break Friday in their fight against a wildfire that damaged or destroyed as many as 200 homes as it raged through hillside neighborhoods peppered with funky enclaves and multimillion-dollar estates with sweeping ocean views.
The Tea Fire was smaller than many of the wildfires that have ravaged Southern California in recent years, but its speed and ferocity exacted a huge toll in property damage and left residents stunned. After breaking out Thursday afternoon, the fire raced unchecked through the populated slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains, exacerbated by 70 mph winds, combustible brush and narrow roads that became clogged with incoming fire crews and outgoing evacuees.
“This thing came on so fast, you just couldn’t believe it,” actor and homeowner Rob Lowe said Friday. “Embers were raining down: They were in our hair; they were in our shirts. … It was absolutely Armageddon.”
Another resident said he was awed by the fire’s destructive force.
“We watched probably about $60 million of houses just burning out on Mountain Valley, a real posh area,” said Paul Morison, who defended and saved his own home in the Riviera area of Montecito.
Among the celebrities with homes in the area are Lowe, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Douglas. Lowe and Winfrey, talking by phone on Winfrey’s television program, said their homes escaped damage. However, an estate owned by actor Christopher Lloyd and valued last year at $11.3 million sustained major damage. Lloyd was filming in Vancouver, but his caretaker “fled for his life,” said Lisa Loiacono of Sotheby’s International Realty.
At an afternoon news press conference at Santa Barbara City Hall, Mayor Marty Blum said at least 100 homes, and perhaps as many as 200, had been damaged or destroyed by the 1,500-acre fire.
A 98-year-old man who was evacuated to a hotel died, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. He said the man had multiple medical problems and his death was being treated as “potentially a fatality related to the fire.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County.