Raging wildfires across California force nearly 8,000 to evacuate: 'It was terrifying'

With a heat wave continuing to bake California and the rest of the West, wildfires forced nearly 8,000 people to dash for safety Sunday as flames destroyed homes and threatened thousands of structures across the state.

Along the Central Coast, firefighters battled two major blazes on opposite ends of Santa Barbara County. Efforts Sunday focused on protecting mountain peaks that hold crucial communication and electrical infrastructure, including a high-voltage line that carries power to Santa Barbara and neighboring cities.

The Alamo fire, near Highway 166 in northern Santa Barbara County, was the largest active fire in California and was 15% contained after burning more than 37 square miles as of Sunday evening, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. At least 200 people were forced to evacuate a remote area east of Santa Maria, and about 1,000 firefighters from Los Angeles and across the state rushed to help control the flames, Cal Fire said.

Nature lends a hand in fight against three massive California wildfires >>

About 35 miles to the south in Santa Barbara County, more than 3,500 people have fled the Whittier fire near Lake Cachuma, which was burning just north of Goleta. The blaze scorched just over 12 square miles and burned 20 structures on both sides of Highway 154, according to officials with Los Padres National Forest.

That fire, which started about 2 p.m. Saturday, initially trapped some 80 campers at the Circle V Ranch Camp. But U.S. Forest Service firefighters reached the group later that day, said Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

On Sunday, firefighters were aided by slightly lower temperatures — nearby Santa Ynez saw a high of 91, compared to 106 on Saturday — and favorable winds blowing in from the Pacific that halted the fire’s spread downhill toward Goleta. The blaze was moving east and west along the Santa Ynez Mountains into areas that were badly burned by two wildfires in the last decade, limiting the available fuel.

"It will act as a good buffer," said Jim Harris, deputy fire chief for Los Padres National Forest.

Harris said the firefighting effort in Santa Barbara County is in need of additional ”hotshot” fire crews with the kind of rugged engines that can navigate the steep dirt terrain where the fire is burning on the south-facing mountain slopes.

A third blaze in the Central Coast, the Stone fire, ignited Sunday just before 2 p.m. about 30 miles east of Morro Bay, according to Cal Fire’s unit in San Luis Obispo County. The fire quickly grew to 340 acres and threatened numerous structures, and was just 10% contained Sunday evening, officials said.

Meanwhile, thousands of evacuees holed up in cars and shelters over the weekend, awaiting word if they were allowed to return home.

Sarah Gustafson, who moved from Washington to California seven months ago, lives in the shadow of the Santa Ynez Mountains down a winding road between Lake Cachuma and San Marcos Pass, just off Highway 154.

She was getting her tires changed on the Santa Barbara side of the mountains Saturday when she saw a pillar of smoke rise on the other side of the range. She panicked: Her six beloved cats were trapped at home.

"It was my worst-case scenario," said Gustafson, who works at a veterinary hospital. "I wasn't home, I wasn't able to get there and I had to evacuate."

Once her tires were secure, she navigated around road closures and made her way over the mountain range as the fire exploded from 300 to more than 3,000 acres in a swath of forest that fire officials said had not burned since 1955.

"It was terrifying," she said. "The sky was orange and black. You could see flames up on the ridge. When I got home it was smokey with ash."

She managed to cram her six cats — Severus, Malfoy, Mama, Smee, Nibbles and her kitten, Gidget — into containers, then into her Toyota sedan. She spent the night in the parking lot of a shelter set up at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara with her cats, a portable DVD player and Season 6 of “The Simpsons” to keep her company.

Fernando Salazar, a biologist from Colombia, and his daughter Veronica Salazar, who recently graduated from MIT, didn't know what to make of the smoke plume at first. The pair darted up the hill from Santa Barbara to a campground in Los Padres National Forest to retrieve their camping gear.

"It was an inferno," Salazar said. "The sky was beautiful, the sun was red."

The pair had seen Yellowstone, Yosemite and points in between during their road trip. "And we end it with a fire," he said.

Elsewhere across California, more than 4,000 people were under a mandatory evacuation order as the Wall fire tore through nearly eight square miles and destroyed 10 structures in a remote part of Butte County, roughly 60 miles north of Sacramento.

The blaze was threatening an additional 5,400 structures, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency and devote additional resources to the firefighting effort there.

Four people have been injured by the Wall fire, which was 17% contained late Sunday, Cal Fire said. The fire was “actively” burning, pushing toward the northwest and southwest and leaving another 7,400 people under evacuation warnings, the agency said.

In some places, firefighters contended with harsh heat. The Winters fire in Yolo County, which registered a high temperature of 104 degrees on Sunday, burned 2,269 acres and was 85% contained, officials said. No more evacuation orders were in place, and the cause of the blaze that ignited Thursday afternoon remained under investigation.

Panzar reported from Goleta and Hamilton from Los Angeles.

javier.panzar@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

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