Montecito fire consumes 111 homes

As a wildfire that devastated the wealthy enclave of Montecito settled down late Friday, a second blaze erupted in Sylmar amid heavy winds and destroyed at least three structures and scorched 100 acres, authorities said.

The Montecito blaze destroyed 111 residences and damaged nine near Santa Barbara before flame-stoking winds died down and the fire stabilized. However, authorities cautioned that the totals could go higher; 1,500 homes were still threatened, and the fire was not contained. Flames had consumed 1,800 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Meanwhile, in Sylmar, heavy Santa Ana winds stoked a fire in the hills above Veterans Memorial Park that began around 10:30 p.m., officials said. Winds quickly pushed the fire toward a line of nearby homes, burning at least three structures by midnight and threatening many more, authorities said.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department -- which had sent strike teams to fight the fire in Montecito on Thursday night -- sent 100 firefighters to the Sylmar blaze. Additional crews from Angeles National Forest joined them.

It promised to be a difficult battle, as Santa Ana winds up to 70 mph are forecast through today, with a red-flag warning in effect for canyons and valleys in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Further north, the Montecito fire was smaller than many of the wildfires that have ravaged Southern California in recent years, but its speed and ferocity exacted a huge toll in property damage and left residents stunned. After breaking out at 6 p.m. Thursday, the fire raced unchecked through the populated slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains, exacerbated by 70 mph winds, combustible brush and narrow roads that became clogged with incoming fire crews and outgoing evacuees.

“This thing came on so fast, you just couldn’t believe it,” actor and homeowner Rob Lowe said Friday. “Embers were raining down, they were in our hair, they were in our shirts. . . . It was absolutely Armageddon.”

Another resident said he was awed by the fire’s destructive force.

“We watched probably about $60 million” worth of houses “just burning out on Mountain Valley, a real posh area,” said Paul Morison, who defended and saved his own home in the Riviera area of Montecito. “This morning they’re gone. . . . The big house we used to look at, probably over 10,000 square feet, there’s nothing.”

Morison estimated that 50 houses had burned around his. He and two friends had defied the flames with garden hoses until 3:30 a.m. Friday.

Among the celebrities with homes in the area are Lowe, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Douglas. Lowe and Winfrey, talking by phone on Winfrey’s television show Friday, said their homes escaped damage. An estate owned by actor Christopher Lloyd and valued last year at $11.3 million sustained major damage, however. Lloyd was filming in Vancouver, but his caretaker “fled for his life,” said Lisa Loiacono of Sotheby’s International Realty.

A 98-year-old man who was evacuated to a hotel died, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. He said the man had multiple medical problems and his death was being treated as “potentially a fatality related to the fire.”

Seven people suffered burns, Santa Barbara County Fire Chief John Scherrei said. Two were taken to a burn center in Sherman Oaks, and five had lesser injuries, he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County.

The wind tapered to near calm Friday, providing firefighters with conditions that were much better than forecast. Predictions called for warm, dry weather but relatively mild winds in the Santa Barbara area this weekend. About 5,500 people remained displaced, according to Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, and firefighters were taking no chances.

“It’s still very unstable, and we’re not by any means ready for people to get back into their homes,” said Santa Barbara Deputy Police Chief Richard Glaus.

As is often the case with Southern California wildfires, the wind caused the fire to hopscotch in places, sparing some homes while igniting others. Some homeowners enhanced their luck through foresight or sheer grit.

When Maurizio Barattucci pulled up Friday morning to the Santa Barbara home he had evacuated the night before, he saw the following scene: To the left, six houses burned to the ground. To the right, four more. In all, 15 homes in his immediate neighborhood were destroyed.

In front of him, still standing, was his house, covered in ash. Water was running everywhere. Barattucci, 69, and his wife Rochelle Barattucci, 70, had left their old-fashioned yard sprinkler running when they evacuated Thursday evening. The pipes had melted during the fire, but the sprinkler had done its job. The sprinkler system had come with the 1924 house on Camino Alto, and it had saved them once before, in the Coyote fire of 1977.

“We were actually the only ones on the street that survived that fire, and it just happened again,” Barattucci said.

Alvaro Suman was among the less fortunate. The working artist evacuated the studio where he paints and sculpts and where he had kept his best work. On Friday, he learned that it was destroyed.

“All my art, my clay work, my paintings -- all gone,” said Suman, 56, who has exhibited widely in the U.S. and Mexico.

On a hilltop above Rattlesnake Canyon, a popular hiking area, fire engulfed a Benedictine monastery, Mount Calvary.

On the opposite side of the canyon, fire raced up a slope to the edge of another hilltop religious retreat, St. Mary’s, a ministry of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. The flames reached 20 feet above the church rooftop. But apart from cracked windows, firefighters managed to protect the sanctuary and surrounding buildings.

The blaze destroyed numerous multimillion-dollar houses but also took a toll on more modest neighborhoods.

Retired actor Richardson Morse walked slowly along a gravel road with arms folded in disbelief at the toll taken in Santa Barbara’s storied Hydeville, a mountain community north of downtown Santa Barbara that locals call a funky hippie village, once known for communal nude wine grape stomps.

It is where some people say hot tubs came into vogue. It was all part of the early 1960s lifestyle that continued in an island of add-on homes that somehow escaped the mansionization of the rest of the upscale seaside city.

In the yards of some homes were shards of the artistic handmade pottery made by local artists.

The fire broke out in the Cold Springs area, near an abandoned hilltop shelter. The Tea House, built early in the 20th century and once surrounded by elaborate waterworks, had long since fallen into disrepair, according to former Montecito Fire Chief Ron McClain.

The cause of the blaze remained undetermined.

Sahagun, Chawkins and Landsberg are Times staff writers.


Times staff writers Ari Bloomekatz, Jia-Rui Chong, Kenneth R. Weiss, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.