Raging wildfires threaten luxury homes

SANTA BARBARA: Firefighters struggled early on Friday to get ahead of a raging wildfire that was moving dangerously close to heavily populated areas in this idyllic coastal city.

Neighbourhoods of multi-million dollar mansions stood like ghost towns, bathed in the eerie orange glow cast by the nearby blaze.

The fire’s increasing strength prompted officials to order 6,000 more people to evacuate late Thursday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. That pushed the total number of evacuated residents to at least 18,000.

Another evacuation order was issued early today in a densely populated area north of US 101 where many mobile home parks are located. The number of people affected by the order wasn’t immediately known.

The blaze was approaching homes in the city’s more populated, flat area below its steep canyons. Santa Barbara city fire spokesman Gary Pitney said flames jumped a road dividing the hilly terrain from the flatlands below and ignited spot fires in brush surrounding houses.

Pitney said the fire also pushed west across state Route 134, the key thoroughfare between Santa Barbara and wine country to the north. Kelley Gouette, a deputy incident commander with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, likened the fire to “a blowtorch.” Officials opened a second evacuation shelter to accommodate 900 additional evacuees. All 190 beds were filled at the first shelter at a high school.

The seasonal wildfires that menace this idyllic coastal city - home to screen stars, former presidents and Oprah Winfrey - roared to life earlier in the year than usual but their ferocity is familiar.

By last night, state officials said the fire grew from 1,300 acres to 2,739 acres - roughly 10 square kilometres. Firefighters had been on alert for a predicted return of a “Sundowner” - fierce winds that late in the day can sweep down from the Santa Ynez Mountains towering close behind Santa Barbara.

The benignly named Jesusita Fire was a slumbering day-old brush fire on rugged slopes above the city when a Sundowner hit at mid-afternoon on Wednesday, hurling towering flames into homes and spitting embers into more distant neighbourhoods.

Some 4,715 homes remained evacuated, and another 12,000 people in 5,200 homes were advised to be ready to leave, according to city and county estimates.

About 2,300 firefighters from many departments were on the lines, aided by aircraft. The fire was just 10 percent contained.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said the blaze was particularly tough to fight as it spread into rugged terrain with thick brush that served as fuel and limited fire-fighting aircraft.

Firefighters are “running pretty thin on equipment,” he said.