- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

MONTECITO, Calif. | Firefighters struggled to get control of a raging wildfire Friday that destroyed more than 100 homes and injured 13 people in this Mediterranean-style coastal town that has been home to celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Oprah Winfrey.

Firefighters said they had to work fast before the winds picked up. Evening winds known locally as “sundowners,” gusting up to 70 mph from land to sea, pushed the fire with frightening speed, chewing up mansions, exploding eucalyptus trees and turning rolling hills into a glowing nightmare.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County on Friday as residents waited anxiously for word on their homes. Many of them fled flames with just a few minutes’ notice.

Helicopter pilots worked through the night, using night vision goggles to drop water on the flames. At daybreak Friday, nearly 20 copters and air tankers were on the job, emergency officials said.

On the ground, fire crews stationed in cul-de-sacs engaged in “hand-to-hand combat” with the flames on winding residential roads, said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief John Scherrei.

Authorities say the fire broke out just before 6 p.m. Thursday and spread to about 2,500 acres - nearly 4 square miles - by early Friday. It destroyed dozens of luxury homes and parts of a college campus in the tony community of Montecito and an unknown number of homes in neighboring Santa Barbara. The cause was not immediately known. There was no estimate for containment for the fire, which more than 500 firefighters were battling.

“That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom,” said Bob McNall, pointing to the black hillside above his home.

Tom Bain said authorities ordered him to leave his home around midnight Thursday. He quickly collected his three cats, work files and computer and was out of his house within five minutes. On his way out, Mr. Bain saw at least six mansions on a ridge above his home explode into flames.

Montecito, a quiet enclave known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities. Miss Winfrey and Rob Lowe are among the homeowners there, though their publicists told the AP their homes had not been destroyed and neither was in the area. Michael Douglas and his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, also have a home nearby.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown, who flew over the burn area early Friday, said the Mount Calvary Benedictine monastery appeared to be destroyed and that he counted more than 80 homes burned to the ground, many along the winding streets around Westmont College.

Michele Mickiewicz, a spokeswoman with the county emergency operations center, said Friday that 10 people were treated for smoke inhalation and three had burn injuries. Earlier, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital reported receiving three patients with substantial burns.

Meanwhile, 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 lives 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,” he said. “I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up.”

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