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REPORTERS’ NOTEBOOK : Helping Hands Are Many for Victims of Santa Barbara Fires

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Barbara County residents, still wearily battling devastating brush fires, may be facing more calamity later this year well after the ashes have cooled.

Rolf Ohlemute, assistant director of the county’s flood control and water conservation district, warned that this week’s fire has burned enough vegetation around four local creek beds to raise the danger of floods this winter.

“Rainfall of just one inch will cause a problem,” Ohlemute said, “It will bring a load of mud into urban areas.”

With no vegetation left to retard the flow of mud into creek beds, the rains could flood San Jose Creek, Maria Ygnacio Creek, San Antonio Creek and San Roque Creek, he said. In an effort to curb the threat, Ohlemute said he hopes to have small concrete dams in place by the end of October.

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But come winter, there may be more evacuations--for a different disaster.

La Vida Hot Springs Cafe on Carbon Canyon Road in Brea is a local institution, where millionaires rub elbows with bikers over barbecue and beer.

Flames came within 100 feet of burning the storied establishment that was built on the site of a 19th Century stagecoach stop. The fire late Wednesday night roared over a ridgeline and around a bend and seemed intent on devouring the restaurant.

“Get out of there, Don!” one woman yelled at restaurant owner Don Himes after he ran inside to retrieve some belongings.

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The restaurant was spared, as were most of the homes and businesses in the fire’s path.

Fire damage was not relegated to houses and other dwellings. About 90 cross ties on a 150-foot steel Southern Pacific railroad bridge just north of Santa Barbara were burned in the fire, disrupting rail traffic on Thursday.

Andrew Anderson, spokesman for Southern Pacific Transportation Co., said the bridge should be repaired and reopened today.

Meanwhile, Amtrak hired charter buses to carry passengers between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. About 500 passengers who showed up Thursday at the train station in Los Angeles for the 9:55 a.m. “Coast Starlight” train to San Francisco and Seattle were ferried to San Luis Obispo on 10 charter buses.

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From there, the passengers boarded trains to complete their trips. Southbound passengers also were to complete the San Luis Obispo-L.A. run on private buses.

“That is our most popular train, and we are in the middle of summer rush,” said Arthur Lloyd, spokesman for Amtrak.

Not everyone was happy with the response of local emergency crews. When some Santa Barbara County residents complained of delays in reacting to the fires, Chuck Wagner, the county’s chief administrative officer, had a ready answer.

“Oh, I have plenty of comment to the criticism,” he said. “I grew up on a farm and I used to have a lot of it on my boots.”

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Wagner said he was at the county command post by 7 p.m Wednesday, within an hour of the time the fire started, and declared a county emergency at 7:35 p.m., making it possible to get emergency aid from the state.

Five emergency Red Cross relocation centers were open by 7:30 p.m., Wagner said, including a commercial inn, several cocktail lounges and a gymnasium at UC Santa Barbara. As many as eight churches also have opened shelters, he added.

For Carol Kemp of Glendale, the fire that swept through her neighborhood carried a sense of deja vu. For the second time in 1 1/2 years, a blaze roared over the hills near her home. And for the second time, her home was spared.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate, just very fortunate,” Kemp said after Wednesday’s brush fire destroyed other expensive homes in the hilly community.

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Kemp was at work when she got word of the fire. She arrived home to find smoke and flames engulfing houses, and turned on a sprinkler system to douse the hillside around her house. Kemp’s home was first threatened in a Dec. 8, 1988, blaze that scorched 350 acres. She felt fortunate to be spared in the latest disaster.

“My personal feeling, once it looked like we were going to be all right, was for my neighbors,” she said.

With fire-stricken residents driven from their homes, the welcome mat was out at some swank shelters.

About 40 evacuees straggled in without reservations Wednesday night to the 63-year-old Four Seasons Biltmore on the beach in Santa Barbara, where the rooms begin at “Superior” for $290 and extend to $1,700 a night.

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The hotel is also donating Biltmore soap and shampoo to the Red Cross and food on Friday, one hotel worker said.

The Tropicana Inn, a block and a half from the beach in Santa Barbara, was giving away its $70 to $110 rooms. Two couples, evacuated from their homes, found themselves sharing the inn’s 1800-square foot penthouse for the night.

“They were in such dire straits,” said Rex Edward Minor, manager of the inn. “They had million-dollar houses. One guy came in just in his shorts. No shoes, no anything. I had to loan him a toothbrush and toothpaste.”

Not all of the accommodations were for humans.

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The Canine Dog Ranch in Carpentaria took in 20 retrievers, Labradors, shepherds and other dogs, in some cases reducing or waiving the usual $9 or $9.50 daily rate.

“Their fur really smells of smoke and they do need a lot of reassurance,” said Judy Jones, a co-owner who expects some of the dogs to be staying for several months. “They came in shocky. Smoke makes them nervous. Also, the owners are upset and the dogs are very sensitive. We give them a lot more personal attention while they’re here.”

There were some tough decisions made by people fleeing their homes: What should they take?

In the Trout Club community, Teresa Rounds and Dennis Nolan were frantically carrying belongings from a frame house that they rent from Jan Rohrbach, a Santa Barbara fireman.

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After fighting the fire down on the flatlands of Santa Barbara until 8 a.m. Thursday, Rohrbach helped Nolan and Rounds salvage some of their belongings from the house that was still threatened by the surrounding brush fires.

With two vehicles already crammed, Rounds took a last look and grabbed items such as photographs and jewelry, “the things you remember.”

Nolan, a carpenter, said, “You just figure you have 15 minutes to live and you grab what you need . . . pictures of your grandmother.” Looking at a shelf filled with books, he decided to pick up a pair of tennis shoes and ignored a portable television set.

As an afterthought he grabbed medals from Vietnam and threw them in a camera bag. Then, he picked up one of a half dozen potted plants to take with him.

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The following Times staff members also contributed to the coverage of the Southern California fires: George Carey, Jim Carlton, Caroline Decker, Maura Dolan, Ashley Dunn, John Kendall, Eric Lichtblau, Philipp Gollner, John Hurst, Penelope McMillan, Santiago O’Donnell, Richard C. Paddock, Robert E. Pierre, Terry Pristin, Amy Pyle, George Ramos, Rochelle Reed, Janny Scott, Tracy Thomas, Carol Watson and Irene Wielawski.

IN HIGH-HAZARD AREAS PROTECTING YOUR HOME FROM BRUSH FIRES 1--Clear all hazardous, flammable vegetation within 30 feet of any structure; cut flammable vegetation to a height of 18 inches for another 70 feet. 2--Screen the chimney outlet with a one-half inch mesh to arrest sparks. 3--Remove limbs within 10 feet of the chimney. Cut away dead branches and limbs that overhang the roof. 4--If you have a pool connsider getting a gas-powered pump and a fire hose to use pool water in fire-fighting. 5--Clean leaves, needles and twigs from roof gutters and eaves. 6--Remember: composition or tile-roofs are best; wooden shingle roofs burn fast. 7--Post house numbers clearly so they may be seen from the street. 8--If you store wood, store it away from the house. 9--Clear flammable vegetation within 10 feet of liquified petroleum gas storage tanks. 10--Plant a green belt of fire-resistant vegetation, such as ice plant, 30 to 100 feet from the house. 11--Make roads and driveways accessible to fire equipment. 12--Have a garden hose long enough to reach completely around house and keep a shovel handy. 13--Consider installing a roof sprinker system. WHEN A FIRE IS HEADING YOUR WAY 14--Wet down your roof with a garden hose only when the fire is within 600 feet; then get down from the roof. 15--Place a ladder (preferably a non-combustible one) against the house for access to the roof. 16--Fill large trash cans with water and place around house in case your water pressure diminishes. Keep small rugs handy to dip in the water and extinguish spot fires. 17--Place valuable documents in your car, along with pets and other items you would want to take with you in case of evacuation. 18--Turn off any propane tanks on the outside of house. 19--Leave lights on. 20--Use good judgment; evacuate when instructed to do so by authorities. Source: Los Angeles County Fire Dept.


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