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Wind is fire’s wild card

Times Staff Writers

A fast-moving wildfire that consumed some 6,600 acres rained smoke and ash from the mountains Friday, leaving residents here wondering whether a stiffer breeze would come up to sweep the blaze into their neighborhoods overnight.

About 800 firefighters, backed by 10 air tankers and six helicopters, continued their assault on the blaze. Although the evening brought temporary relief, erratic winds known as “sundowners” were expected at up to 20 mph between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Because of the fire’s proximity to populated areas, officials made it the state’s top priority among the 335 wildfires burning across California, including a nearly 69,000-acre fire in the Big Sur area that continues to threaten homes and popular campgrounds.

Throughout the day, the Goleta blaze, called the Gap fire, left residents in the Santa Barbara County community hurriedly preparing to leave if necessary. Hundreds of smoke masks were distributed to residents.

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After several unsettling nights in her Goleta neighborhood, Heather Wehnau, 27, decided to bunk with friends in Isla Vista, a community on the coast next to UC Santa Barbara. “Picture ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” she said. “The sky is orange. There’s no power. Your neighbors are sitting on their porches with radios and flashlights. You can see the fire, you can smell it, you can’t breathe -- but you don’t know where it is.”

Wehnau packed her cat, her dog, jewelry, documents, a Dr. Seuss book -- “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” -- that was inscribed for her by her parents when she graduated from high school. Lacking electricity, she and some friends wore headlamps, lighted candles and threw a piece of tri-tip on the barbecue.

The flame front stayed about a mile north of Goleta’s rustic neighborhoods Friday. Residents of more than 1,800 homes were ordered to evacuate and those in an additional 1,400 were told to start packing up their valuables in case an evacuation order came. No homes have burned since the fire started Tuesday. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to visit with Santa Barbara County officials today.

The “sundowners” are a quirk of Santa Barbara’s mountainous east-west coastline, bringing stiff, Santa Ana-like winds around sunset. They were expected to weaken over the weekend but remained a serious threat Friday.

Firefighters hoped the irrigated lemon and avocado groves north of Cathedral Oaks Road would slow any run the fire might take down the canyons. But the winds have caught them off guard before.

For residents of Goleta, Isla Vista and Santa Barbara, information about the fire became a precious commodity. Sheriff’s deputies at each corner in the evacuation zones provided the best, most up-to-date news. Neighbors who seldom talked to each other offered up whatever they knew.

“We should print bumper stickers,” said Wehnau, a grower at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. “ ‘It takes a fire to build a community.’ ”

Some residents ignored evacuation orders -- law enforcement cannot force people to leave their homes. It’s a tricky public policy issue.

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During last year’s blazes in Southern California, firefighters conceded that untold numbers of homeowners who defied evacuation orders saved their homes. The threat to most houses is not a wall of flames, but embers that blow through windows, attic vents and gaps in roof tile -- and can be doused if they are spotted in time.

Eddie Marciniak, 42, had no qualms about leaving his log cabin in the area known as Trout Club. He saw what sundowner-driven flames can do when the Painted Cave fire of 1990 burned it to the ground. He didn’t want to be there if it happened again.

On Friday night, he loaded his car with clothing and paintings. “I saw the tips of the flames coming over the ridge toward our house,” said Marciniak, a construction worker and abstract painter who took shelter with friends in Santa Barbara. “It felt like it was less than 100 yards away.”

Heavily wooded, the Trout Club neighborhood was built as a second-home refuge for Santa Barbarans in the 1940s. A creek running through it was stocked with trout. But the idyllic spot could be dangerous when flames swept through.

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Marciniak came to the area about eight years ago from Big Sur, where friends have lost their homes to the big fire raging there.

On that stretch of coast, more than 68,000 acres have burned, 20 structures have been destroyed and about 1,300 are threatened. But while the fire continued to inch downhill toward the Big Sur community Thursday night, it moved at a slow enough pace that firefighters had time to cut brush and trees to protect buildings. Almost 1,800 firefighters are battling the blaze.

“Fire behavior was considered minimal, which was good,” said Leanne Langeberg, a spokeswoman for the multi-agency team fighting the blaze.

Firefighters are focusing on the Palo Colorado Canyon area, where the fire is still some distance from a hamlet of 250 homes, and on the southwest edge of the fire near the Esalen Institute, Langeberg said. The red flag warning issued Thursday has been lifted, with moderate winds expected today.

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The Fourth of July weekend is normally one of the busiest along Highway 1. A cavalcade of cars and campers snakes along the scenic ribbon of pavement, clinging to precipitous cliffs and dipping into redwood glens. But Friday there was a strange tranquillity as parking lots sat empty beneath a thick plume of smoke.

Kurt Mayer, 53, owner of the rustic Big Sur Center deli and gift shop, spent the night on the floor of his store. He had cleared brush, built a perimeter and smeared the weathered wood building with white fire-retardant gel.

He said the fire would cause a big revenue loss for merchants. But he seemed unfazed by it all.

“Lots of stuff happens,” he said. “Floods. Mudslides. Blah, blah, blah. The usual stuff. You just do what you can do and try to take care of yourself.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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Chawkins reported from Goleta and Barabak from Big Sur. Times staff writers Joe Mozingo and Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.


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