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

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

SANTA BARBARA — Firefighters gained the upper hand Friday against Southern California's most ferocious fire in decades and were counting on cool, moist air rolling in from the ocean to help them fully contain the blaze.

The Santa Barbara blaze was the worst of a devastating rash of wildfires that killed at least two people, destroyed nearly 600 homes and blackened more than 17,000 acres this week across Southern California.

By late Friday night, the Santa Barbara fire was 65% contained, said Linda Riddle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. Barring a dramatic change in weather conditions, she said, the blaze was expected to be 100% contained by noon today.

Flames still could be spotted along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains Friday evening. Firefighters working 12-hour shifts remained in the hills to fight minor skirmishes with the small plumes of smoke that erupted here and there in the brush.

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

Their counterparts in northeastern San Diego County, however, were less fortunate. That county's biggest brush fire of the season raged out of control late Friday in the remote Lake Henshaw area, scorching more than 4,000 acres and forcing the evacuation of about 400 residents from the small community of San Felipe, the California Department of Forestry said. The fire is not expected to be controlled until midnight Sunday.

As with three other major fires this week--in Santa Barbara, Glendale and Chino Hills--investigators said an arsonist was to blame in the San Diego County blaze. Authorities also suspect arson in a series of smaller fires that broke out Friday in the Antelope Valley and charred 300 acres before being controlled.

In Santa Barbara, the body of 37-year-old Andrea Gurka was discovered earlier Friday as a force of 1,700 firefighters battled to make sure the sea breezes didn't push the 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 other people 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 County Sheriff's Department said that because the woman died in a deliberately set fire, anyone prosecuted for arson 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 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. By late Friday, the fire had burned a total of 4,900 acres.

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 the 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.

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