Strong winds deliver a blow to a dry Southland

A helicopter drops water on the Gibraltar fire, which broke out in bone-dry chaparral in the Los Padres National Forest above Montecito.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Gusty winds reaching up to 50 mph whipped California on Thursday, fanning the flames of a wildfire in the hills above Santa Barbara County and felling power lines and trees across the Southland.

The strong northerly winds — which knocked out power to nearly 7,000 Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers — previewed the arrival of the first Santa Ana winds of the season, which the National Weather Service predicts will continue into Friday.

Howling winds prompted an aggressive attack on the Gibraltar fire, which broke out shortly after 5 a.m. in bone-dry chaparral in the Los Padres National Forest above Montecito, said Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.


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The blaze spread to 50 acres near Montecito Peak, about five miles from the nearest homes. An evacuation warning until Friday morning was issued for those in the hills of Montecito north of Highway 192, a busy but scenic roadway that runs parallel to the 101 Freeway.

Thick smoke lingered above the neighborhoods, forcing the nearby Cold Springs and Montecito Union elementary schools to close.

“You can never be too cautious,” said school employee Aaron Brinegar.

Such caution guided the vigorous firefighting response, which included more than 500 personnel and a fleet of aircraft based at the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base. Ten air tankers and a wide-body airplane dumped more than 85,000 gallons of retardant around the fire’s perimeter, according to the U.S. Forest Service, giving the hillsides a striking magenta hue.

As of 6 p.m. Thursday, the fire was 10% contained, the agency said.

Mother Nature helped slow the growth of the blaze: The fire smoldered just below a small ridge that shielded the flames from winds swirling through the mountains.

Residents in the area are all too familiar with the devastation that powerful winds can bring. In 1990, the Painted Cave fire burned 5,000 acres in three hours and destroyed 427 homes. In 2008, the 1,940-acre Tea fire, sparked by a smoldering bonfire, damaged or destroyed 219 homes.

Facing what locals call “sundowner” wind conditions, officials took few risks. The warm, down-slope winds occur along the south coast of Santa Barbara County when a strong pressure system develops between Los Angeles and the Central Coast.

When the wind funnels through the canyons, it can create hurricane-force gusts, fire officials said. The winds are the strongest in Goleta and Montecito.

Firefighters were especially concerned about the area because it is filled with older growth that is especially susceptible to hard winds.

“It hasn’t burned in over 50 years,” said Amber Anderson, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. “When the fire gets in there, it burns really hot,” she said. “Tall flames ... changing directions. It gets dangerous for firefighters to fight on the ground.”

Strong winds also battered Los Angeles County, where winds were clocked at 50 mph in Van Nuys and in the Malibu Hills. The Santa Monica Pier saw a peak of 40 mph.

In South L.A., a tree toppled onto two cars near 46th Street and Broadway, and sparks flew from a transformer in East Hollywood, according to video posted online. Roaring winds even sent a tree falling onto a Granada Hills home, shocking the homeowners awake.

As of 4:30 p.m. Thursday, 7,000 DWP customers remained without power, according to spokeswoman Amanda Parsons. Most of those outages were because of the winds.

The cause of the powerful gusts was a low-pressure system that moved east, generating strong northerly winds in its wake, said Dave Bruno, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

The Santa Ana winds were expected to bring wind gusts exceeding 60 mph, said Scott Sukup, a meteorologist for the weather service, before they blow out of the region.; Twitter: @sarahparvini; Twitter: @VeronicaRochaLA; Twitter: @MattHjourno

Parvini reported from Los Padres National Forest, Rocha and Hamilton from Los Angeles.


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