Winds whip Calif. wildfire into fury

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Firefighters were holding their own Friday against a wildfire that destroyed more than 100 homes in a wealthy, celebrity-studded enclave, but authorities warned that evening wind gusts could send the blaze on another destructive sprint.

Much of the damage to homes and a small Christian college occurred Thursday night, but several more homes burned Friday in Montecito, a quaint and secluded area that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey. More than 1,000 firefighters worked to contain the blaze ahead of winds that were expected to pick up after sundown.

"It's not a time to relax," said Santa Barbara County Deputy Fire Chief Tom Franklin.

"Everybody's got to be diligent through tonight. It's the last evening of these wind events."

Franklin said up to 200 homes may have burned in the area and asked for patience from residents as crews try to catalog the devastation in remote hilly areas accessible only by winding roads.

"We want to make sure the area is completely safe before we let people back in there," Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Ron Prince said. "I have to beg, basically, for your patience."

At least 13 people were injured. A 98-year-old man with multiple medical problems died after being evacuated to a hotel, but it was unclear if his death was directly related to the blaze, Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said.

Blistering winds gusting to 70 mph, dry brush and oil-rich eucalyptus trees helped turn an ordinary brush fire into an exploding inferno that quickly consumed rows of luxury homes and part of Westmont College, where students spent the night in a gymnasium shelter.

The fire began about 6 p.m. Thursday before it chewed through multimillion-dollar homes whose shattered windows glowed like jack-o-lanterns as they blazed through the night.

"That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom," said Bob McNall, 70, who with his son and grandson saved their home by hosing it down. "The whole sky was full of embers, there was nothing that they could do. It was just too much."

A state of emergency was declared in Santa Barbara County and about 5,400 homes were evacuated in Montecito, a town of 14,000 where Los Angeles-weary celebrities rub shoulders with friendly locals who have lived there for years.

At least part of actor Christopher Lloyd's property was damaged in the fire, the Los Angeles Times reported on its real estate blog. It said a Times reporter witnessed much of the "Back to the Future" actor's eight-acre grounds in ruins, and that he was filming on location in Vancouver but a caretaker had fled the property. Lloyd's agent had no comment Friday when contacted by The Associated Press, and messages left with his manager were not returned.

Lowe, the actor, said he fled with his children as fire engulfed the mountain and flames shot 200 feet in the air. The family stopped to check on neighbors and found them trapped behind their automatic car gate, which was stuck because the power was out. Lowe said he helped get the big gates open.

"Embers were falling. Wind was 70 miles an hour, easily, and it was just like Armageddon," Lowe told KABC-TV. "You couldn't hear yourself think." Lowe said his house hadn't burned.

Fueled by vast stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees — which exploded when lit — and decades of chaparral and other growth, the fire quickly spread to about 1,500 acres — more than 2 square miles — by Friday. Earlier the fire had been estimated to be about 2,500 acres, but the estimate was lower after better aerial mapping was conducted, said Prince, the city fire chief.

Ten people were treated for smoke inhalation and three others had burns, said Michele Mickiewicz, a spokeswoman with the county emergency operations center. Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital reported receiving three patients with substantial burns.

At Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school, 1,000 students were evacuated. About 300 spent the night on cots in the gym. Some stood in groups praying; others sobbed openly and comforted each other.

Flames chewed through a eucalyptus grove on the 110-acre campus and destroyed several buildings housing the physics and psychology departments, at least three dormitories and 14 faculty homes, college spokesman Scott Craig said.

"I saw flames about 100 feet high in the air shooting up with the wind just howling," he said.

Beth Lazor, 18, said she was in her dorm when the alarm went off. She said she had time only to grab her laptop, phone, a teddy bear and a debit card before fleeing the burning building.

Her roommate, Catherine Wilson, said she didn't have time to get anything.

"I came out and the whole hill was glowing," Wilson said. "There were embers falling down."

Among those worried about their homes was talk show host Winfrey. During a taping Friday morning, she said the fire was about two miles from her house. Homes of her friends and neighbors were destroyed.

"It's not a good morning for us," she said. "Some of my friends left their homes with only their dogs last night as I was calling, 'Are you all right? Are you all right?' They said, 'We have the dogs and the kids aren't here, so we're OK.'"

Evacuee Tom Bain relived the hellish scene after fleeing his home in five minutes with his three cats, some work files and a computer. On the way out, he saw at least six mansions on the ridge above his home explode in flames.

"I saw $15 million in houses burn, without a doubt," said the 54-year-old electrician. "They were just blowing up. It was really, intensely hot."

About 200 people spent the night at an evacuation center at a high school in nearby Goleta, but rest was out of the question for Ed Naha, a 58-year-old writer who feared he lost his home in the hills above Santa Barbara.

"We are used to seeing smoke because we do have fires up here, but I've never seen that reddish, hellish glow that close," Naha said. "I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up."

Flames had licked at the home of Gwen Dandridge, 61, and her husband Joshua Schimel, 51, but it was still standing when they returned Friday morning — something the couple attributed to lots of weed-whacking to clear the brush around the home.

"We have a house! We have a house!" Dandridge shouted said as she first spied the home.

Montecito, a quiet community known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities.

The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch was the honeymoon site of John F. Kennedy in 1953.

Montecito suffered a major fire in 1977, when more than 200 homes burned. A fire in 1964 burned about 67,000 acres and damaged 150 houses and buildings.


Bob Jablon and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles and Thomas Watkins in Montecito, Calif., also contributed to this report.


College Students Fight Emotions as Fire Rages

By Kenneth R. Weiss and Steve Chawkins

Los Angeles Times

MONTECITO, Calif. — The Westmont College gym was itchy hot and getting hotter. Eye-burning smoke seeped inside, despite blue duct tape that sealed the cracks between the double doors.

As campus officials repeatedly assured about 800 students and faculty that this sturdy, cinder-block gym was the safest place to be, evacuees formed prayer circles on the wooden floor.

Others made frantic cell phone calls to family and friends. One played a guitar and sang. A few burst into tears, and more joined them when a voice on the public address system announced that some of the dorms were engulfed in flames. What was to come of them? Of their laptops left behind? Of the leafy campus of the small Christian liberal arts college tucked in the hills of Montecito?

Freshman Megan Reed tried to hold it together. Thursday was her 19th birthday. The planned evening celebration with friends at a popular Italian restaurant in Santa Barbara's State Street had turned into a long sweaty night in the gymnasium.

"Just keep breathing," she said to herself, "but not too deeply." The air was thick with smoke. A confetti of blackened ash began drifting down from the ceiling vents.

"A lot of the girls started freaking out," Reed said afterward. She said she felt a surge of panic before taking comfort in her roommate, Codi Dennstedt. The picture of calm, Dennstedt, 18, had been forced to evacuate her home when she was in high school and wildfires raged through her hometown of Fallbrook, Calif., in northern San Diego County.

Amid the crying and rising tension, Westmont President Gayle D. Beebe took to the public address system to reassure them that they were in the safest place on campus.

The anxiety inside the building paled against the maelstrom outside, where tornadoes of fires and smoke skittered across the campus, igniting trees, buildings and the lawn. By daylight, fires had leveled 14 of the 41 faculty homes, the physics building, the old math building, a pair of Quonset huts and four of the 17 buildings that make up Clark and Bauder halls.

In a message to the campus on Friday, Beebe expressed his gratitude that no one was injured by the fast-moving firestorm that swept down the hill and set the campus ablaze. "But we're deeply saddened that 15 of our faculty families, and one retired professor, have lost their homes. Given the strength of the winds and the fire, we're amazed that the damage isn't greater."

Tom Fikes, professor of psychology and neuroscience, lost a home, but managed to escape along with his wife, Jerolyn, two teenage children, their pet hamster, two cats and the two kittens they were fostering for a nearby animal shelter.

They also managed to collect a prized guitar, but had to leave behind many other musical instruments and a hand-crafted wooden kayak that he and his son had spent hundreds of hours building. "That was a heartbreak," he said, after touring the wreckage Friday morning. "I had hoped the garage would be there or the kayak would be sitting off to the side."

When he arrived at the ruins, firefighters were still dousing hot spots. One handed him a portion of a ceramic figurine made by one of his children. "It was a bit more emotional than I thought it would be," he said.

He was amazed at the randomness of the destruction. One healthy plant on the porch sat untouched amid others turned to charcoal.

The campus-owned house where he has lived for a decade was all but gone. The house across the street was left untouched. The hopscotch pattern repeated through the tight-knit community of faculty housing.

"Every house you saw standing was a relief because you know that family was spared. Every house down was devastating. The way the wind whipped around the fire was not unlike the way a tornado whips around," he said. "It's somewhat random."

Fikes also lost his office. Yet his nearby laboratory was unscathed.

The orderly evacuation of students came after repeated drills on campus, including a recent one that offered the chance of winning an iPod just for showing up at the gym. The campus of 1,300 students and 90 professors had developed a plan to keep students safely sheltered in the gym rather than risk being overtaken by fire while driving down streets lined by tall eucalyptus and other highly flammable vegetation.

"The students did amazingly well," said Chris Call, a campus vice president who organized the crisis response, which included a three-day supply of food and water and a medical station. The campus showed two movies, "The Incredibles" and "Elf," to pass the time as fear devolved to boredom. By 2 a.m., some students had the option of moving to San Marcos High School in Goleta or to Reality Church in Carpinteria.

Reed and Dennstedt opted to go to Reality, taking a bus down the hill to the church building, a couple of blocks from the Pacific Ocean. "As soon as we stepped off the bus, the air was so cool and refreshing to breathe," Reed said. "We really didn't notice it until we got here how good fresh air can be."

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