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Santa Barbara fire grows to more than 7,000 acres at start of hot, windy weekend

A Santa Barbara County brush fire had swelled to more than 7,000 acres as of Saturday morning, fueled by strong winds, rising temperatures and an extended drought.

Officials said Saturday that the fire was 45% contained. Notorious “sundowner” winds did not emerge overnight as they had feared, but were expected to surge again Saturday evening.

Even stronger winds were expected late Sunday through Monday morning. And the weekend is also ushering in a new challenge: a heat wave that will bring temperatures reaching into the triple digits.

Scorching heat wave headed for Southern California this weekend »

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“As the temperatures get hotter this weekend and the winds get stronger, as the sundowners come in to take effect, it will continue to push that hot gas faster downhill,” said Michelle Carbonaro, a spokeswoman for a team of agencies combating the fire. “When the wind comes down like that, it makes the fields and fuels more ready to burn.”

Mandatory evacuation orders are in effect for El Capitan, Refugio, Venadito, Canada de la Destiladera and Las Flores canyons north of Santa Barbara. Residents of neighboring communities, such as Las Llagas, Gato, Las Varas, Dos Pueblos and Eagle canyons received evacuation warnings.

“We caution you again that not complying with a mandatory evacuation order is something that you do at your own peril,”  Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

Los Padres National Forest fire (Dillon Deaton / Los Angeles Times)

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County officials said the fire had begun off Refugio Road around 3:15 p.m. Wednesday. Its cause was still under investigation.

Despite the fire’s rapid growth, firefighters managed to save a campground and keep flames away from other developed property. About 270 structures are under evacuation orders, but only one outbuilding had been lost.

Also lost was a water treatment plant in El Capitan Canyon. It provided water to El Capitan State Park for bathrooms, water fountains and other uses, according to officials.

Its loss could force public areas to remain closed even after the flames are subdued, officials said.

The flames are racing through a combustive mix of chaparral, tall grass and brush in a wilderness area that has not experienced a major fire since 1955.

The surreal scene included fire tornadoes with temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees. As of Saturday morning, more than 1,200 personnel were fighting the flames.

Two firefighters had suffered minor injuries but returned to battling the blaze, officials said Saturday.  A few of the firefighters also were discovered to be suffering from strep throat, officials said Friday. That problem appeared to be contained, even as the official evening bulletin cataloged the ongoing fire risk.

“There is continued threat to structures, agricultural crops, state parks, and critical infrastructure including: communication sites [and] power lines. And Highway 101 remains a concern.”

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As the fire raged out of control Thursday night, the 101, a major north-south artery, closed to traffic as tendrils of flame burned on both sides of the roadway. Motorists trapped en route took pictures of a helicopter dropping flame retardant in the fast lane.

The highway reopened at 4 a.m. Friday and was open as of Saturday morning, but officials have warned that gusty evening downslope winds could prompt them to close the highway again.

Watch as the Santa Barbara fire jumps Highway 101 and firefighters seek shelter »

The sundowner winds are the result of hot air from the Santa Ynez Mountains clashing with cool air off the Pacific Ocean.

“What we need is a break from the wind,” said David Zaniboni, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Many locals evacuated because of the poor air quality — they were tired of breathing in thick smoke and ash, which created a misty plume clearly visible from satellite photos taken far above the planet’s surface.

Riley Keith, a 65-year-old retiree, said he saw smoke blanket the sky over El Capitan Ranch and knew it was time to go.

Keith, his wife, Yvonne, his mother, Betty Bosworth, and their dog and bird have been living out of their car since the fire started Wednesday.

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It hasn’t burned in so long. I guess it needed to happen. But who needs a disaster?
Riley Keith, a 65-year-old retiree

They were living at his sister’s ranch in El Capitan when mandatory evacuation orders arrived Wednesday night.

He said his sister stayed behind, while he and his family slept in an Albertsons parking lot. The family since has moved to a shelter in Goleta, while Keith’s sister continued her vigil in defense of her property.

“She’s tough as nails,” he said. “But you have to be when you’re running a ranch. My wife and I just couldn’t stand the smoke.”

Keith, a Santa Barbara native, said he has grown accustomed to wildfires, but not necessarily of this scope.

Santa Barbara fire bad omen for dangerous California fire season »

“It hasn’t burned in so long. I guess it needed to happen,” he said. “But who needs a disaster?”

Although the threat to residents has been limited so far, the county’s $1.48-billion agriculture industry may not be so fortunate.

Avocado, citrus and olives groves already have been scorched, but it’s too early to determine the extent of the damage, county officials said.

Santa Barbara County on Friday declared a state of emergency, which will qualify the region for increased aid.

ALSO

Fire spreads in Santa Barbara County, prompting mandatory evacuations

Santa Barbara fire explodes with the help of dangerous ‘sundowner’ winds

Santa Barbara fire explodes to 1,700 acres and again closes Highway 101

 


UPDATES:

11:59 a.m.: This article has been updated with officials saying that the fire is 45% contained.

This article was originally published at 9:19 a.m.


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