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Cave fire: Residents thought they were safe, then flames and smoke ‘began to blossom’

Smoke from the Cave fire rises behind the Santa Barbara Mission
The Cave Fire continues to burn in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara Tuesday morning.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

At the Goleta Valley Community Center, residents forced to flee their neighborhoods just a few days before Thanksgiving awaited word about their homes as the Cave fire continued to chew through dry brush in Santa Barbara County.

Among them was 90-year-old Irene Lamberti, who arrived at the center with her 88-year-old husband. Lamberti, who lives in an unincorporated area of Goleta a few miles from the edge of the fire, first saw smoke while driving home from a swim aerobics class Monday afternoon.

She didn’t think she would have to evacuate and settled down to watch an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” on television and eat dinner.

“I didn’t think it was going to affect us,” she said.

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But about 8 p.m., an official knocked on the door and told her that people in her neighborhood were evacuating. Lamberti and her husband spent about half an hour packing a small suitcase, grabbing what they could.

They forgot their toothbrushes and her husband’s pajamas, but Lamberti made sure to bring a Japanese embroidery of a Geisha that she’d been working on for months.

“Our house is like a museum. You can’t take everything,” she said. “I wasn’t going to leave that.”

The Cave fire in Santa Barbara County is threatening homes in Santa Barbara and Goleta. It’s being pushed by down-canyon winds with 30-mph gusts.

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By 7 a.m., the fire had burned 4,100 acres but had not touched any homes in a rural region north of Santa Barbara.

Stan Jeffries, 91, was at home with his wife in San Vicente Mobile Home Park on Monday afternoon when his daughter called to alert him to the fire. He walked out to the street and could see plumes of smoke in the surrounding mountains.

“First we saw smoke, and it wasn’t too alarming,” he said. “As it got darker, you could see the flames and they began to blossom.”

The fire didn’t seem to be an immediate threat, but hours later, a neighbor from their mobile home community’s disaster preparedness committee knocked on their door.

“I think our committee was a little conservative, but by the time we left, we could see the fire coming down the mountain,” he said.

Firefighters struggle with a brush fire that has forced thousands in Santa Barbara County to evacuate. They hope a coming bout of rain turns the tide.


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