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Santa Barbara fire consumes more homes

Thousands more people are evacuated as the flames spread to the south and west. Residents from Montecito to Goleta are on high alert.

May 09, 2009|Joe Mozingo and Ann M. Simmons

SANTA BARBARA — The Jesusita fire slid into canyon fingers along the ridgeline above Santa Barbara on Friday, creating a five-mile curtain of flames and smoke from Goleta to Montecito and driving 30,500 residents from their homes.

The fire, which leaped west and east before dawn, did not spread much during the day, but state fire officials upped their estimate of the burned acreage from 3,500 to 8,600, saying they were able to make a more accurate assessment. They put the number of homes damaged or destroyed at 80.

The cost of battling the blaze is now $3.2 million, with 3,455 personnel, 428 engines, 14 air tankers, 15 helicopters and the state's specially equipped DC-10 trying to snuff it out.

By evening the fire was still only 10% contained, and firefighters were making stands at both ends of the blaze, waiting to see if the area's notorious sundowner winds would carry flames down the mountain.

On the western front, fire crews lined up along State Route 154 where it crosses Maria Ygnacia Creek, which dumps into a sheer-walled canyon. If the fire jumped the road, it could run straight south down the canyon toward Goleta. If the fire hopped the creek, it could burn west and threaten the heavily wooded residential community of Painted Canyon.

"This is where they better make for damn sure it doesn't go farther," said Art Tranberg, a safety officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

At least 20 engines and eight hand crews were going up and down the mountain road, dousing spot fires and bracing for expected winds. "There are going to be sundowners, they're adamant about that," said Mike Crosby, 44, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention engineer from Napa.

He and his three firefighters monitored a hot spot burning through thick oak and chaparral. The vegetation was too dense to penetrate, so they could only wait to see if the winds would kick up.

A hundred yards away, an oak tree exploded, sending up a torch of flame and black smoke. "It just hit a little jackpot of fuel there," Crosby said.

Crosby feared if the winds blew up as strongly as the night before, the brush would unleash 100-foot flames at his men. He said they couldn't do much if that happened.

"I'm not going to let my three guys get hurt, and I'm not going to get hurt. I want to go home to my wife and grandkids," said Crosby. He said he had mapped an escape route.

At the eastern frontier, on West Camino Cielo Road near La Cumbre Peak, crews had two fears: that the blaze would jump to the north, spreading into wide-open backcountry where it could rage for months like the Zaca fire in 2007; or that it would arc around the burnt-out footprint of last November's Tea fire into chaparral that could carry the fire into Montecito.

"It's really spotty fuels right now," said Mike Deponce, a Santa Barbara city fire captain. He pointed to a deep draw of pure green chaparral just above. "That will probably take off before the day is through."

Deponce said wind-driven embers have been jumping containment lines all week, triggering the explosive growth in the fire's coverage area.

His crew made the long trek up to Gibraltar Road, through fields of wildflowers that had sprung from the scorched ground of the last fire. At the top, they took out picks and chain-saws and began cutting containment lines in the brush.

The fire shifted back and forth as the ocean wind fought the inland wind. As it burned out roots in the granite, rocks became unmoored, setting off small avalanches.

In the early afternoon, CalFire's converted DC-10 jet appeared above La Cumbre Park to dump 12,000 gallons of retardant, the plane's first visit to the four-day-old blaze.

Tom Franklin, Santa Barbara County's fire chief, had said Thursday that the plane "would be completely ineffective in this terrain." Friday, he said he was referring to the conditions that day, and added that the area the DC-10 hit was "exactly where it was needed."

The jet, which reloaded in Victorville, managed at least two drops before sundown.

Westmont College, which had moved its commencement because of damage from the Tea fire, was evacuated Friday, as were some Episcopal monks who had been staying at a retreat house since their monastery was destroyed last year.

But not everybody ordered out of their homes stayed away.

A woman who identified herself only as Eve because she had returned to an evacuated area and feared arrest was walking her two dogs along a deserted Mountain Drive in eastern Mission Canyon. She said that her family had left Wednesday night, but her husband returned Thursday to check out their property and see if they could return. He later swept up a trash can full of ash.

"We don't want to be in anybody's way, but it is private property, and we would like to take care of everything," she said, adding that they would leave if it became dangerous.

Evacuees crowded into hotels, while others stayed with friends or went to shelters.

Montecito resident Sonja Lindstrom and her 6-year-old daughter Chloe sought refuge at the same beach house where they retreated when the Tea fire destroyed their home and most of their belongings.

They moved into their new home in January and were still dealing with insurance and bills when the order came to leave.

"I don't have the energy to break down and cry," Lindstrom said. "It's like here we go again."

--

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

ann.simmons@latimes.com

Times staff writers Esmeralda Bermudez in Santa Barbara and Gale Holland and Victoria Kim in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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