May 8, 2009 / 3:00 AM / in 9 years

California wildfire unchecked as night falls

SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) - Firefighters braved a return of unpredictable “sundowner” winds on Thursday night as they battled to keep a wildfire that destroyed dozens of multimillion-dollar homes from burning through the coastal city of Santa Barbara.

<p>The pool of a house that was destroyed during the Jesusita fire is pictured in Santa Barbara, California May 7, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>

A late-night update from Santa Barbara County officials put the estimated number of homes destroyed or damaged in the foothills and canyons overlooking the city at 75, with 3,500 more dwellings and about 100 businesses still threatened.

As of Thursday night, more than 4,700 homes -- or roughly 12,000 residents -- were under mandatory evacuation orders from the so-called Jesusita fire, which began on Tuesday afternoon.

Eleven firefighters have been injured, including three who suffered burns and smoke inhalation when their engine was overrun by flames, forcing them to take cover in the house they were trying to save on Wednesday.

Calmer winds late Thursday afternoon gave firefighters the chance to make headway some against the flames as they edged towards the more populated downtown area of Santa Barbara, and they managed to establish containment-lines around 10 percent of the blaze by nightfall.

Hot, dry winds that notoriously kick up around sunset began gusting through the area about 8 p.m., later than expected and with less ferocity than the night before, fire officials said.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has spent recent days promoting wildfire safety throughout the state, visited the site of the first major fire of the year on Thursday and said dozens of homes have been destroyed.

STUDENTS TRAPPED IN BACK-COUNTRY

One homeowner said he stayed at his house despite evacuation warnings, and nearly perished.

“I didn’t want to lose my home. It’s that simple,” homeowner Albert Lindemann told KTLA-TV news, adding that his house ultimately was saved by firefighters who arrived just in time.

“I thought we were going to die,” he said. “Until I started seeing those firemen coming in there, I didn’t think any human being could be out there.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that search and rescue teams saved a group of middle-school students who had been camping in the backcountry and found themselves cut off by the fire.

Authorities said rugged terrain, thick brush and gale-force winds made it difficult to control the blaze. Winds died down overnight, allowing an aerial assault by water-dropping helicopters to continue round-the-clock.

Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County on Wednesday, a move that frees up additional funds and equipment. The firefighting force also was beefed up overnight, growing from more than 900 personnel to about 1,400, with additional helicopters and airplanes joining the battle.

Three firefighters whose engine was overrun by flames on Wednesday while they struggled to save a home were reported to be in serious condition at a Los Angeles burn centre but were expected to recover.

In southern Arizona, fire teams said they were working to contain a blaze that torched three homes and burnt 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) of mountainous grass and woodlands southeast of Tucson in recent days.

“The fire is not advancing,” Jonetta Holt, a spokeswoman for the incident management team said of the blaze near the city of Sierra Vista. “We have a line around it and we are working to secure it.”

In November, more than 200 homes were destroyed in Santa Barbara and the surrounding communities in a brush fire that was blamed on a bonfire started by local students.

Writing by Dan Whitcomb

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