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Thousands flee as California fires rage

Latest update : 2009-05-08

Firefighters in the Californian city of Santa Barbara braced for unpredictable winds as the rapidly moving blaze forced thousands to flee. Dozens of homes have gone up in flames.

REUTERS - Firefighters wary of unpredictable "sundowner" winds fought on Thursday to keep a wildfire that destroyed dozens of multimillion-dollar homes from burning through the city of Santa Barbara.

Although there were no further reports on Thursday of houses lost in the foothills above Santa Barbara, crews were on alert because the hot, dry winds notoriously pick up speed at sunset. Officials said about 3,500 homes remained threatened.

Some 15,000 people have been driven from their homes by the so-called Jesusita fire. It has also injured 10 firefighters and blackened at least 1,300 acres (525 hectares) surrounding the picturesque seaside community since it ignited on Tuesday.

Calmer winds late Thursday afternoon gave firefighters the chance to make headway against the blaze, which was edging toward the more populated downtown area.

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 and said dozens of homes have been destroyed.

Students trapped in back-country

"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 center but were expected to recover.

In southern Arizona, fire teams said they were working to contain a blaze that torched three homes and burned 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.

Date created : 2009-05-08