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Santa Barbara brush fire forces evacuations

Wind-whipped flames char at least 420 acres in the foothills, renewing memories of last fall's devastating fires that destroyed more than 200 homes.

May 06, 2009|Catherine Saillant and Steve Chawkins

SANTA BARBARA — A wind-driven brush fire Tuesday in the Santa Barbara foothills charred at least 420 acres, forced the evacuation of about 1,000 homes and renewed grim memories of the devastating fires that swept through the area last fall.

The Jesusita fire started about 1:50 p.m., racing through thick chaparral on the slopes above San Roque Canyon. It was burning about a mile west of November's Tea fire, which destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito.

By nightfall, authorities said they knew of no structures destroyed, despite the tower of brownish-white smoke that loomed over the ridgelines. But they warned that the flames were just half a mile from homes and moving toward the city. Some 2,000 structures were threatened, officials said.

Firefighters braced for an onslaught of sundowner winds that gusted down the mountains and toward the sea. For hours, three helicopters dropped water on the advancing blaze. Some 70 engines and several hundred firefighters were either at the scene or on the way from other areas.

Using a reverse 911 system, officials notified residents in areas north of California Highway 192 to pack up. Those in the more densely populated Mission Canyon neighborhood below the fire were placed on alert.

"We don't want them to stay until the last minute and then leave," said David Sadecki, a Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman. "That's when people get stranded on roads and get hurt."

Authorities said the flames knocked out a transformer, triggering sporadic power outages in the city.

School officials canceled today's classes at five schools.

Matthew Campbell, 52, already had doused his roof with water and packed his car with family photos and important documents. He had been through the drill before during the Tea fire, but was still reluctant to leave.

"I refuse to believe the house is going to burn, at least not in May," he said. When a sheriff's deputy drove up moments later, Campbell overcame his skepticism. She asked him to leave, and he did.

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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