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Fire engulfs California homes

Text by REUTERS

Latest update : 2008-12-09

A brush fire that broke out Thursday evening has injured at least 13 people and destroyed more than 100 homes, many of them luxury estates. The fire spread to 800 hectares overnight in areas northwest of Los Angeles.

MONTECITO - A wind-driven fire in Southern California has hurt at least 13 people and gutted well over 100 homes, many of them luxury estates, in the seaside celebrity enclave of Montecito, officials said on Friday.

 

The brush fire erupted on Thursday evening and charred at least 2,000 acres (810 hectares) overnight, roaring through entire blocks of mansions in the community northwest of Los Angeles that is dubbed "America's Riviera."

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor, declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County, putting additional state resources at the disposal of local fire departments.

 

Firefighters were largely powerless to stop the destruction as gusts howling at 70 mph (110 kph) fanned the flames through gated estates in the foothills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

 

"Mother Nature basically took over," Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace told a news conference.

 

Montecito, whose 10,000 homeowners include actors John Cleese, Christopher Lloyd and Rob Lowe and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, lies about 90 miles (145 km) from Los Angeles.

 

A statement from Winfrey's Chicago-based production company said her home had "not been affected by the fire" but the fate of other celebrity mansions was not immediately known.

 

Winds died down after sunrise but were expected to kick up again later on Friday, leaving some 650 firefighters a brief window of opportunity to gain some ground.

 

"We're going to have a tough day ahead. Control of this fire is not even in sight," said Don Prince, fire chief of the neighboring city of Santa Barbara. "We're not out of the woods by any stretch."

 

About 2,500 homes were evacuated and 20,000 people in the wider area were without power, officials said. With reservoirs running low from lack of rainfall, authorities declared a water emergency in Montecito.

 

'Super-heroic efforts'

 

Southern California is on high wildfire alert this weekend due to unseasonably hot weather, drought conditions and forecasts of high winds.

 

A year ago, 30 wildfires burned during one week in Southern California, destroying some 2,000 homes and forcing a record 500,000 residents to evacuate.

 

Prince said "well over 100 homes" had been lost in the Santa Barbara blaze but that many had been saved thanks to "some super-heroic efforts" on the part of firefighters.

 

Among the 13 people hurt, 10 suffered from smoke inhalation and three from burns, the county's emergency operations center said in a statement.

 

According to Prince, two of the burn injuries were serious. County Fire Chief John Scherrei said he had heard of five more burn victims but had no details.

 

Wallace, the Montecito fire chief, said 1,000 students at Westmont College, a private Christian university that suffered substantial damage in the blaze, were out of harm's way after taking shelter in a fireproof gymnasium.

 

By early Friday, the relentless fire had spread to the fringes of neighboring Santa Barbara city, where at least 20 homes were damaged, officials said.

 

Other famous residents include mobile phone pioneer Craig McCaw and Google Inc chief executive Eric Schmidt, who reportedly paid about $20 million for comedian Ellen DeGeneres' compound earlier this year. It was not known if any of these homes were affected by the fire.

Date created : 2008-11-14

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