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Santa Barbara fire consumes 1,300 acres, 'dozens' of houses

The Jesusita blaze has driven 13,575 from their homes. More heat and wind are expected today.

May 08, 2009|Ann M. Simmons and Steve Chawkins

SANTA BARBARA — Milder-than-expected winds Thursday allowed firefighters to make some progress against the Jesusita fire, gaining 10% containment by nightfall. But late in the day, officials also expanded the evacuation area to the west, explaining that the wildfire was still spreading and remained unpredictable.

"The fire is going to go where it wants to go. We have to anticipate that," said Drew Sugars, a Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department spokesman.

More than 2,700 acres have burned so far, but fire officials said only about 75 structures were destroyed or damaged, far fewer than might have been expected given winds of more than 50 mph and dense vegetation.

About 2,300 firefighters, as well as 246 engines, 10 air tankers and 15 helicopters, were fighting the fire. The cause remains unknown.

On Thursday morning, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, meeting with fire officials, called the blaze "a great challenge" and promised money for fighting the fire despite a state budget crisis.

"We are 100% behind the people of Santa Barbara," he said.

In Mission Canyon, the century-old Gane House at the 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was engulfed in flames, leaving little more than three brick chimneys standing.

"We're very heartbroken," said Nancy Johnson, the garden's vice president of marketing and government relations. "We were hoping to restore it to its grandeur."

Lost inside were all the gardening tools, horticultural materials, the metal shop that made tags to identify plants, the overstock of books published by the garden, and the office contents and computers of the head gardener and facilities maintenance man, Johnson said. Biofuel gardening trucks parked outside also appear to have been destroyed.

On Wednesday, a Santa Barbara County sheriff's search and rescue team saved 13 Ojai seventh- and eighth-graders and their teacher hiking in the backcountry and trapped by the fire, said Sheriff Bill Brown.

A helicopter, using night vision, also located three hikers reported missing in the hills, Brown said.

Residents who remained in their homes when the fire flared up Wednesday described walls of fire and blasts of embers stirred by ferocious winds.

Walter Hildbrand was jubilant Thursday. It was his mother's 90th birthday and the flames hadn't touched her house on leafy Las Canoas Road.

Hildbrand, a 69-year-old former Santa Barbara city firefighter, also saved his own home with a garden hose.

"I came up the driveway and saw this wall of flames on the hillside behind the house and just kept on spraying," he said.

Albert Lindenmann said he and his wife watched the fire scorch the mountainside below the home they have owned for more than 40 years. They stayed and spread a fire-blocking gel.

"We just thought we could defend ourselves," said Lindenmann, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara. "Our house didn't catch on fire. I think we did everything right."

Howard Schiffer was told that his home on Orange Grove Avenue was destroyed.

Schiffer said he spent last week in a Kenyan refugee camp, distributing nutritional supplements for a group he started in 1994 called Vitamin Angels Alliance.

"These people had nothing at all," he said. "They had to deal with losing their homes to violence and hate, which, I believe, is tougher than losing one to a natural disaster. We're OK."

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Times staff writers Molly Hennessey-Fiske and Catherine Saillant in Santa Barbara, and Nita Lelyveld and Sam Quinones in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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