SANTA BARBARA, California – Firefighters were holding their own Friday against a wildfire that destroyed more than 100 homes in a wealthy, celebrity-studded enclave, but authorities warned that evening wind gusts could send the blaze on another destructive sprint.
Much of the damage to homes and a small Christian college occurred Thursday night, but several more homes burned Friday in Montecito, a quaint and secluded area that has attracted celebrities such as actors Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges and Michael Douglas and TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey. More than 1,000 firefighters worked to contain the 1,800-acre (728-hectare) blaze ahead of winds that were expected to pick up by early Saturday morning.
“It’s not a time to relax,” said Santa Barbara County Deputy Fire Chief Tom Franklin. “Everybody’s got to be diligent through tonight. It’s the last evening of these wind events.”
An acrid scent and thick shrouds of smoke lingered over Montecito on Friday night as firefighters walked the winding streets extinguishing hot spots. Utility workers were trying to cut off gas lines and restore power, while police set up roadblocks and patrolled the area looking for looters. Police said one person was caught Thursday but the patrols had discouraged other potential looters.
Franklin said up to 200 homes may have burned in the area and asked for patience from residents as crews try to catalog the devastation in remote hilly areas accessible only by winding roads.
At least 13 people were injured. A 98-year-old man with multiple medical problems died after being evacuated to a hotel, but it was unclear if his death was directly related to the blaze, Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said.
Blistering winds gusting to 70 mph, dry brush and oil-rich eucalyptus trees helped turn an ordinary brush fire into an exploding inferno that quickly consumed rows of luxury homes and part of Westmont College, where students spent the night in a gymnasium shelter.
The fire began about 6 p.m. local time Thursday before it chewed through multimillion-dollar homes whose shattered windows glowed like jack-o-lanterns as they blazed through the night. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
A state of emergency was declared in Santa Barbara County and about 5,440 homes were evacuated in Montecito, a town of 14,000 where Los Angeles-weary celebrities rub shoulders with friendly locals who have lived there for years.
At least part of actor Christopher Lloyd’s property was damaged in the fire, the Los Angeles Times reported on its real estate blog. It said a Times reporter witnessed much of the “Back to the Future” actor’s eight-acre (three-hectare) grounds in ruins, and that he was filming on location in Vancouver but a caretaker had fled the property. Lloyd’s agent had no comment Friday when contacted by The Associated Press, and messages left with his manager were not returned.
Lowe, the actor, said he fled with his children as fire engulfed the mountain and flames shot 200 feet (61 meters) in the air. The family stopped to check on neighbors and found them trapped behind their automatic car gate, which was stuck because the power was out. Lowe said he helped get the big gates open.
“Embers were falling. Wind was 70 miles (112 kilometers) an hour, easily, and it was just like Armageddon,” Lowe told KABC-TV. “You couldn’t hear yourself think.” Lowe said his house hadn’t burned.
Fueled by vast stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees — which exploded when lit — and decades of chaparral and other growth, the fire quickly spread to about 1,500 acres (607 hectares) — more than 2 square miles (1,280 acres) — by Friday. Earlier the fire had been estimated to be about 2,500 acres (1,011 hectares), but the estimate was lower after better aerial mapping was conducted.
Ten people were treated for smoke inhalation and three others had burns, said Michele Mickiewicz, a spokeswoman with the county emergency operations center. Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital reported receiving three patients with substantial burns.
At Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school, 1,000 students were evacuated. About 300 spent the night on cots in the gym. Some stood in groups praying; others sobbed openly and comforted each other.
Flames chewed through a eucalyptus grove on the 110-acre campus and destroyed several buildings housing the physics and psychology departments, at least three dormitories and 14 faculty homes, college spokesman Scott Craig said.
Beth Lazor, 18, said she was in her dorm when the alarm went off. She said she had time only to grab her laptop, phone, a teddy bear and a debit card before fleeing the burning building.
Her roommate, Catherine Wilson, said she didn’t have time to get anything.
“I came out and the whole hill was glowing,” Wilson said. “There were embers falling down.”
Among those worried about their homes was talk show host Winfrey. During a taping Friday morning, she said the fire was about two miles (three kilometers) from her house. Homes of her friends and neighbors were destroyed.
“It’s not a good morning for us,” she said. “Some of my friends left their homes with only their dogs last night as I was calling, ‘Are you all right? Are you all right?’ They said, ‘We have the dogs and the kids aren’t here, so we’re OK.'”
Evacuee Tom Bain relived the hellish scene after fleeing his home in five minutes with his three cats, some work files and a computer. On the way out, he saw at least six mansions on the ridge above his home explode in flames.
“I saw $15 million in houses burn, without a doubt,” said the 54-year-old electrician. “They were just blowing up. It was really, intensely hot.”
About 200 people spent the night at an evacuation center at a high school in nearby Goleta, but rest was out of the question for Ed Naha, a 58-year-old writer who feared he lost his home in the hills above Santa Barbara.
“We are used to seeing smoke because we do have fires up here, but I’ve never seen that reddish, hellish glow that close,” Naha said. “I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up.”
Flames had licked at the home of Gwen Dandridge, 61, and her husband Joshua Schimel, 51, but it was still standing when they returned Friday morning — something the couple attributed to lots of weed-whacking to clear the brush around the home.
Montecito, a quiet community known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities.
The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch was the honeymoon site of John F. Kennedy in 1953.
Montecito suffered a major fire in 1977, when more than 200 homes burned. A fire in 1964 burned about 67,000 acres (27,114 hectares) and damaged 150 houses and buildings.