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Fire roars through Montecito

Flames consume up to 80 homes as the blaze moves from the upscale community toward Santa Barbara.

November 14, 2008|Catherine Saillant and Steve Chawkins | Chawkins and Saillant are Times staff writers.

MONTECITO — A fast-moving brush fire driven by 50- to 70-mph winds erupted Thursday night in the hills above Montecito in Santa Barbara County, burning at least 800 acres, destroying up to 80 homes and forcing evacuations of luxury neighborhoods, authorities said.

The fire broke out about 6 p.m. in the wealthy Cold Springs area of Montecito, where a number of celebrities live, and quickly overwhelmed firefighters with its speed.

"I have so many concerns," said Terry McElwee, operation chief for the Montecito Fire Department. "It's just moving so fast right now. . . . We're having trouble rounding up enough resources."

Three helicopters with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were dropping water where they could gain access as firefighters struggled to get engines and equipment to threatened structures. Nevertheless, the fire continued to press southwest, toward Santa Barbara.

"It looked like lava coming down a volcano," Leslie Hollis Lopez told the Associated Press as she gathered her belongings from her house.

More than 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, dubbed the Tea fire. Departments included Santa Barbara County, the city of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Carpinteria, and the California Department of Forestry. Mandatory evacuations were in effect for an area above California 192, between Cold Springs Road and Hot Springs Road.

Geri Ventura, a spokeswoman for the Montecito Fire Department, said an evacuation center was set up at San Marcos Senior High School in Santa Barbara, and students at nearby Westmont College were told to gather in the campus gym.

As the fire swept through the college area, at least two buildings were destroyed, but no injuries were reported, authorities said.

Although two evacuation centers were opened, many Montecito fire-area residents chose to wait out the fire at hotels -- some of which were full -- or at friends' homes.

Bobby Shand stopped at the Holiday Inn in Carpinteria, about five miles away, looking in vain for a room for himself and his family. He had just received word that two of his friends' homes had been destroyed, but he didn't yet know the fate of his own. The family had not waited for evacuation orders but packed up cherished belongings in three cars and headed out.

Lone Jensen Broussard, a minister from Phoenix, moved to the Holiday Inn after the fire interrupted her stay at the Casa de Maria retreat in Montecito. She had been enjoying Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara when she looked up into the hills and spotted the smoke and flames near the retreat house. She hurried back to find a nervous staff getting ready to leave.

"I was there for a nice, peaceful retreat, to get away from the stress and strain," she said, "but at least now I have something to pray for."

Some residents decided to leave their homes even before being required to do so.

Physicist Matthew Fisher, watching news of the fire in the Nugget restaurant and bar in Summerland, a village adjacent to Montecito, said he spotted the blaze up the hill from the family home in Montecito's Eucalyptus neighborhood.

"I looked up and decided it wasn't irrational to pack up the car," Fisher said. His wife, Wendy, decided to take her wedding dress, and their 3-year-old daughter, Maya, chose her flamenco dress -- a gift from her grandparents' trip to Spain. They also packed up photos and journals Wendy had kept as a teenager. And, of course, the family dog.

Janet Higbie, visiting from New York, got more than she had bargained for when she found herself waiting to see whether her mother's assisted-living home in Santa Barbara would be evacuated.

"The sky is pink, it's smoky, and for a while, the power was off," Higbie said. "Now we're just waiting to see whether we need to evacuate."

In the hills of Montecito, residents could be seen packing up cars. Horse trailers and Porsches snaked their way down narrow, winding mountain roads.

Montecito resident Kent Kimball, 47, left his three sons and employees from the family's mechanic shop watering down his home on Sycamore Canyon Road while he took his mountain bike up to the 700 block of Chelham Way to get a better look at the fire and the direction it was taking.

Asked if he was worried about his home, Kimball responded: "Not necessarily. I've got good fire insurance."

Among those celebrities with homes in the area is talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, who owns a 42-acre estate there. Other famous property owners include actors Rob Lowe and Michael Douglas.

Lowe's publicist, Alan Nierob, told the Associated Press that the actor's home had not been destroyed and he was not staying there Thursday night.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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