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Thousands more forced to flee fires

Sat., May 9, 2009

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Turning the horizon a lurid orange and raining embers on roofs as it advanced, a raging wildfire that has destroyed scores of homes in the hills menaced this celebrity enclave and other coastal towns Friday, and the number of people ordered to flee climbed to more than 30,000.

Authorities warned an additional 23,000 to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, despite improving weather conditions.

“There will be a point in the incident when I will have cautious optimism but I’m not there yet,” said Joe Waterman, the overall fire commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Columns of smoke rose off the Santa Ynez Mountains as the four-day-old blaze grew to 8,600 acres, creating a firefighting front five miles long.

“It’s crazy. The whole mountain looked like an inferno,” said Maria Martinez, 50, who with her fiance hurriedly left her home in San Marcos Pass, on the edge of Santa Barbara. The couple went to an evacuation center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Fierce “sundowner” winds that sweep down the slopes in the evening didn’t happen as predicted, but Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin warned they could return “and blow the fire back downhill.” Instead, breezes blew in from the Pacific Ocean late Friday, pushing the fire away from homes, he said.

Officials estimated 80 homes were destroyed – most of them on Wednesday – in neighborhoods on ridges and in canyons above Santa Barbara.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

The number of people ordered to evacuate rose to 30,500 Friday from 12,000 the night before as the blaze pushed west toward neighboring Goleta and east toward well-to-do Montecito.

“Literally last night, all hell broke loose,” Santa Barbara Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said Friday morning, recounting firefighters’ efforts to put out roof fires and keep flames out of his section of the city.

More than 2,300 firefighters battled the blaze, using at least 246 engines, 14 air tankers and 15 helicopters. A DC-10 jumbo jet tanker capable of dumping huge loads of retardant began making runs on the fire in the afternoon.


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