Firefighters gained the upper hand Friday against Southern California’s most ferocious fire in decades and were counting on cool, moist air rolling in from the ocean to help them fully contain the blaze.
The Santa Barbara blaze was the worst of a devastating rash of wildfires that killed at least two people, destroyed nearly 600 homes and blackened more than 17,000 acres this week across Southern California.
By late Friday night, the Santa Barbara fire was 65% contained, said Linda Riddle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. Barring a dramatic change in weather conditions, she said, the blaze was expected to be 100% contained by noon today.
Flames still could be spotted along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains Friday evening. Firefighters working 12-hour shifts remained in the hills to fight minor skirmishes with the small plumes of smoke that erupted here and there in the brush.
“The temperatures are coming down. The humidity is up,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal William Bennett. “That’s good news for us firefighters.”
Their counterparts in northeastern San Diego County, however, were less fortunate. That county’s biggest brush fire of the season raged out of control late Friday in the remote Lake Henshaw area, scorching more than 4,000 acres and forcing the evacuation of about 400 residents from the small community of San Felipe, the California Department of Forestry said. The fire is not expected to be controlled until midnight Sunday.
As with three other major fires this week--in Santa Barbara, Glendale and Chino Hills--investigators said an arsonist was to blame in the San Diego County blaze. Authorities also suspect arson in a series of smaller fires that broke out Friday in the Antelope Valley and charred 300 acres before being controlled.
In Santa Barbara, the body of 37-year-old Andrea Gurka was discovered earlier Friday as a force of 1,700 firefighters battled to make sure the sea breezes didn’t push the fire over the top of San Marcos Pass and into the dry brushlands of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Officials said the woman’s body was found by firefighters in a creek bed behind her home on Old San Marcos Pass Road. They said she apparently had taken refuge there Wednesday night in the mistaken belief she could escape a wall of flame advancing down the mountainside. The search for her began after her husband reported her missing Thursday night.
More than 40 other people were injured in the Santa Barbara blaze, including the pilot of a helicopter that crashed. Ten people remained hospitalized--the most seriously injured of them a man who was burned while attempting to save several dozen horses that died in a burning stable.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department said that because the woman died in a deliberately set fire, anyone prosecuted for arson would also face a murder charge. So far, no suspects have been identified or arrested.
The other fatality in Southern California’s fires was Victor Ferrera, one of 17 inmate firefighters overrun by flames Wednesday while battling a 150-acre blaze near Hemet that later was brought under control. Officials said Ferrara died of burns late Thursday night.
Another inmate firefighter remained in critical condition at San Bernardino Medical Center on Friday. Three others were reported in good condition at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital.
Gurka’s small house in the Santa Ynez Mountains was among 519 homes destroyed in the Santa Barbara blaze. The count was revised downward from 567 Friday afternoon as embers cooled enough to permit a more accurate count.
Officials said 438 houses, 80 apartment units and one mobile home, with a total value of at least $231 million, had been burned beyond repair. At least 12 other homes were damaged. By late Friday, the fire had burned a total of 4,900 acres.
Ten business structures were destroyed and 10 more damaged, with a loss estimated at $3 million. Four government buildings were lost and 11 damaged, with a loss estimated at $1.6 million.
For many of those who lost their homes, Friday was a time to begin picking through the ruins and reassembling lives torn asunder as the Santa Barbara fire--driven by hot offshore winds gusting at up to 60 m.p.h.--marched down the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains Wednesday night to invade the coastal residential districts below.
Seventy-eight-year-old Margaret Morris’ head was swathed in gauze to cover the burns she suffered Wednesday night when flames destroyed the house she and her husband had shared in the Park Highlands area since 1971.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said as she searched for undamaged items amid the rubble of the $700,000 home. “We can’t begin to replace it.”
The Morris’ daughter, Penny Stewart, said her parents, who have been staying with her since the fire, were severely shaken by the disaster.
“I woke up at 5 a.m. and my mom was sobbing,” she said. “My dad has always been like the Rock of Gibraltar, but last night he was up, looking for sleeping pills.”
On the other hand, for some residents of the beleaguered mountainside community of Painted Cave whose homes survived despite a two-day, around-the-clock assault by the fire, Friday was a time to cheer.
“We still have our homes!” Dave Hardy yelled with glee as he surveyed the charred landscape surrounding his house and realized that, for the first time since Wednesday afternoon, the home was not in danger.
“It seems to really be over,” Hardy said.
In Painted Cave, the power and phone lines were still down Friday, but Biff Cooke, who has a gasoline-powered generator, invited anyone who wanted to to stop by, charge up the batteries on their portable phones and enjoy a cold beer from one of the last refrigerators still working in town.
Down the hill, at actress Jane Fonda’s summer camp for children, employees dished up chicken burritos, fruit salad and brownies to weary, soot-covered firefighters.
“It’s pretty calm out there,” said Robert Ooley, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “It’s still smoldering somewhat, but it’s nothing like before.
“It’s certainly on the downside now.”
On San Marcos Pass Road, arson investigators cordoned off an area, roughly 100 by 30 feet, in which they say the “incendiary device” that started the fire was found.
Officials declined to describe the device or give further details about what they had learned.
“We don’t have a great deal,” one investigator, who declined to give his name, admitted Friday. “We have bits and pieces. We’re trying to put the bits and pieces together.”
Santa Barbara Mayor Sheila Lodge decided Friday to cancel the city’s 4th of July celebration after concluding that the scheduled fireworks display would be a “slap in the face” to those who have suffered in the fire.
Only two cities in Santa Barbara County--Santa Maria and Guadalupe--permit any sort of private fireworks displays, and county fire officials said extra patrols would be deployed during the next week to watch for illegal fireworks.
Bill Medigobich, regional chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, surveyed the burn area by helicopter on Friday and said he would immediately recommend to Washington that Santa Barbara be declared a federal disaster area.
“I’ve seen a fair number of brush fires in my time, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said. “If this isn’t a disaster, then there aren’t any.”
President Bush has yet to make such a declaration, which would free up federal money for use in rebuilding the area.
On Friday, Gov. George Deukmejian added Riverside and San Bernardino counties as designated disaster areas. On Thursday, he had made the declarations for both Santa Barbara and Glendale.
The Antelope Valley fires, which Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies said they believe were set by an arsonist, broke out within an hour of each other in the western part of the Antelope Valley and in Acton.
“It’s like some firebug went driving down the road lighting fires,” said Deputy Martin Shearer.
No homes were damaged in any of those blazes. The largest one threatened two single-story ranch homes, but the flames were halted by firefighters setting back fires.
Firefighters said Friday night that they had fully controlled yet another blaze that burned 14 homes and blackened 6,650 acres in the Carbon Canyon area of the Chino Hills. A transient was arrested Thursday on suspicion of setting that fire.
Authorities are continuing to investigate Wednesday’s arson-caused fire in Glendale that destroyed 46 homes and damaged 20 more, causing a loss estimated at between $30 million and $40 million. So far, there are no suspects.
In the Southland’s other major blaze, a 4,500-acre wildfire in Riverside County was reported 60% contained Friday night after burning eight homes south of Corona. That blaze was blamed on a controlled burn that got away from U.S. Forest Service crews.
Malnic reported from Los Angeles and Ramos from Santa Barbara. Contributing to this report were Richard C. Paddock, Ashley Dunn and Carol Watson.