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2 Dead as Fiery Tide Is Turned : Disaster: Firefighters gain upper hand over devastating Santa Barbara blaze. Dropping temperatures, rising humidity aiding the battle.

June 30, 1990|ERIC MALNIC and GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA BARBARA — Firefighters began to gain the upper hand Friday over the rash of devastating wildfires that killed at least two people, destroyed almost 600 homes and blackened more than 17,000 acres this week in Southern California

Flames form the 4,900-acre Santa Barbara fire still burned along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains Friday night, but dank onshore breezes prompted officials to predict that the stubborn blaze would be fully contained by noon today.

"The temperatures are coming down. The humidity is up," said Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal William Bennett. "That's good news for us firefighters."

The body of 37-year-old Andrea Gurka was discovered Friday as a force of 1,700 firefighters battled to make sure the sea breezes didn't push the Santa Barbara fire over the top of San Marcos Pass and into the dry brushlands of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Officials said the woman's body was found by firefighters in a creek bed behind her home on Old San Marcos Pass Road. They said she apparently had taken refuge there Wednesday night in the mistaken belief she could escape a wall of flame advancing down the mountainside. The search for her began after her husband reported her missing Thursday night.

More than 40 others were injured in the Santa Barbara blaze, including the pilot of a helicopter that crashed. Ten people remained hospitalized--the most seriously injured of them a man who was burned while attempting to save several dozen horses that died in a burning stable.

The Santa Barbara fire is believed to have been deliberately set, and the county Sheriff's Department said that because of the woman's death, anyone prosecuted for arson in the fire would also face a murder charge. So far, no suspects have been identified or arrested.

The other fatality in Southern California's fires was Victor Ferrera, one of 17 inmate firefighters overrun by flames Wednesday while battling a 150-acre blaze near Hemet that later was brought under control. Officials said Ferrara died of his burns late Thursday night.

Another inmate firefighter remained in critical condition at San Bernardino Medical Center on Friday. Three others were reported in good condition at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital.

Gurka's small house in the Santa Ynez Mountains was among 519 homes destroyed in the Santa Barbara blaze. The count was revised downward from 567 Friday afternoon as embers cooled enough to permit a more accurate count.

Officials said 438 houses, 80 apartment units and one mobile home, with a total value of at least $231 million, had been burned beyond repair. At least 12 other homes were damaged.

Ten business structures were destroyed and 10 more damaged, with a loss estimated at $3 million. Four government buildings were lost and 11 damaged, with a loss estimated at $1.6 million.

For many of those who lost their homes, Friday was a time to begin picking through ruins and reassembling lives torn asunder as the Santa Barbara fire--driven by hot offshore winds gusting at up to 60 m.p.h.--marched down the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains Wednesday night to invade the coastal residential districts below.

Seventy-eight-year-old Margaret Morris' head was swathed in gauze to cover the burns she suffered Wednesday night when flames destroyed the house she and her husband had shared in the Park Highlands area since 1971.

"I don't know what we're going to do," she said as she searched for undamaged items amid the rubble of the $700,000 home. "We can't begin to replace it."

The Morris' daughter, Penny Stewart, said her parents, who have been staying with her since the fire, were severely shaken by the disaster.

"I woke up at 5 a.m. and my mom was sobbing," she said. "My dad has always been like the Rock of Gibraltar, but last night he was up, looking for sleeping pills."

On the other hand, for some residents of the beleaguered mountainside community of Painted Cave whose homes survived despite a two-day, around-the-clock assault by the fire, Friday was a time to cheer.

"We still have our homes!" Dave Hardy yelled with glee as he surveyed the charred landscape surrounding his house and realized that for the first time since Wednesday afternoon, the home was not in danger.

"It seems to really be over," Hardy said.

In Painted Cave, the power and phone lines were still down Friday, but Biff Cooke, who has a gasoline-powered generator, invited anyone who wanted to to stop by, charge up the batteries on their portable phones and enjoy a cold beer from one of the last refrigerators still working in town.

Down the hill, at actress Jane Fonda's summer camp for children, employees dished up chicken burritos, fruit salad and brownies to weary, soot-covered firefighters.

"It's pretty calm out there," said Robert Ooley, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. "It's still smoldering somewhat, but it's nothing like before.

"It's certainly on the downside now."

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