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Brush fire in Santa Barbara County grows to nearly 70 acres as powerful winds blow

Gibraltar fire

Tankers drops retardant during an aerial assault on a brush fire that has broken out in the area of Montecito Peak near Santa Barbara Thursday morning.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A blaze burning in the Santa Barbara County hills grew to nearly 70 acres Thursday as powerful winds howled through the region.

An air tanker dropped about 1,200 gallons of retardant on the rapidly spreading Gibraltar fire. Winds reaching up to 15 mph halted operations for at least two other planes because of turbulence, which creates dangerous conditions for pilots trying to get close to drop retardant. The tankers carried 6,200 gallons of retardant combined.

Jim Kunkle, a contractor who runs the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, said 10 tankers were ordered to the area.

“They’re going after everything they can get,” he said in a statement.

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The blaze broke out about 5:15 a.m. near East Camino Cielo Road, three miles east of Gibraltar Road, in the Los Padres National Forest, said Capt. David Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Winds were pushing the flames east, about eight to 10 miles from homes, fire officials said. Zaniboni said the situation could change, depending on shifting wind conditions. Winds could reach 40 mph Thursday afternoon, bringing sundowner, Santa Ana-wind conditions.

Santa Ana season starts in September, but it hits its peak between late October and early November, said Capt. Gary Pitney with the San Bernardino City Fire Department.

“This is prime time for us,” he said.

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About 200 firefighters from multiple Santa Barbara County fire agencies, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service were tackling the fast-moving flames.

The fire appeared to be stable by 11:30 a.m., fire officials said, thanks to aggressive attacks and an assist from Mother Nature.

The fire near Montecito Peak was smoldering just below a small ridge, protecting the flames from gusty winds swirling through the mountain.

An evacuation warning was issued for areas north of Highway 192, east of Cold Springs Road, west of West Buena Vista Drive and south of East Camino Cielo Road.

The fire sent thick smoke over some neighborhoods, forcing the closure of Cold Springs and Montecito Union elementary schools.

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

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 the wake of strong winds.

In 2008, sparked by a smoldering bonfire on a ridge line overlooking Montecito, the 1,940-acre Tea fire damaged 219 homes.

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The homes of several staffers with the Montecito Union School District were lost, Supt. Tammy Murphy said.

“The fire affected our families,” she said.

Facing sundowner wind conditions, school officials aren’t taking any risks this time. The warm, downslope winds occur along the south coast of Santa Barbara County when a strong pressure system develops between Los Angeles and the state’s Central Coast.

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

“We are erring on the side of abundance of safety,” Murphy said.

The blaze was burning just two miles east of the old Tea fire. Firefighters were concerned about the area because it is filled with old growth.

“It hasn’t burned in over 50 years,” said Amber Anderson, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. She said that old chaparral creates conditions that make fighting a fire difficult.

“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.”

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Earlier, a fire erupted in Los Angeles County amid strong winds.

The blaze was reported just before 2 a.m. near Potrero Canyon Road and Highway 126 in the Santa Clarita area. It was whipped by winds with gusts of up to 42 mph, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Crews worked through the morning to stop the flames from spreading into Ventura County, officials said, and aided by a water-dropping helicopter, firefighters were able to douse the nine-acre blaze.

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA

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