More than 100 homes gutted in wealthy California enclave
AFP - Saturday, November 15
MONTECITO, California, (AFP) - - Firefighters were battling a wind-driven wildfire that ripped through an exclusive California enclave, forcing celebrities, millionaires and thousands of residents to flee.
At least 100 homes in the hillside community of Montecito, 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, had been gutted by the blaze which was raging in the rugged hills and canyons of the picturesque seaside town.
Montecito, ranked by Forbes magazine in 2006 as the seventh most expensive neighborhood in the United States, with an average home price of 2.9 million dollars, is a popular retreat for the rich and famous.
Celebrities such as talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood actors Michael Douglas, Jeff Bridges and Rob Lowe all own property in the area.
The firestorm erupted after flames driven by wind gusts of up to 70 miles (112 kilometers) per hour, known locally as "sundowners," overwhelmed firefighters on Thursday.
There have been no reported fatalities but 13 injuries, including three suffering from burns and 10 suffering from smoke inhalation, according to figures from Santa Barbara County.
Fire officials told reporters Friday that control of the blaze, which had burned around 1,500 acres (607 hectares), was "not even in sight" and suggested the number of homes destroyed may have been greater.
Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum told reporters later Friday that "between 100 and 200" homes had been damaged or destroyed but could not elaborate.
Some 4,500 people have received mandatory evacuation orders while a further 4,500 have been advised to leave their homes, as an army of 1,200 firefighters, including a DC-10 retardant-dropping super-tanker, tackles the flames.
Santa Barbara Fire chief Ron Prince said although winds eased on Friday, "control of this fire is not even in sight."
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County early Friday.
Meanwhile Hollywood star Lowe told how he had been forced to flee his home on Thursday after the sudden arrival of flames.
"I was watching the football game with my son and my wife called and said 'Montecito's on fire -- get out!'," Lowe said on Winfrey's chatshow Friday.
"I thought she was kidding because there was no indication that there would be any problem whatsoever. But we got in the car, pulled out of the driveway and the entire mountain behind us was in flames."
Winfrey, who owns a 50-million-dollar 42-acre estate in Montecito, said the flames had not reached her property.
Fire chief Prince meanwhile described the loss of property in the fire as "huge" and said only "super-heroic" efforts from firefighters had prevented greater destruction.
"Our hearts go out to all the citizens that lost their homes. We haven't even been able to do a complete assessment yet but we're talking well over 100 homes. It's been a real tragedy in that respect," Prince said.
Montecito resident Andrew Bermant, whose home on the millionaire's row of Coyote Road was destroyed, expressed relief that he had been able to safely evacuate his family at dusk.
"The bottom line is we know the risk of living here and we're always fearful with these sundowner winds. We're glad it didn't happen at two in the morning when everyone was asleep," Bermant said.
California is frequently hit by scorching wildfires due to its dry climate, Santa Ana winds and recent housing booms which have seen housing spread rapidly into rural and densely forested areas.
The Montecito fire comes just over a year after devastating wildfires that were among the worst in California history, that left eight people dead, gutted 2,000 homes, displaced 640,000 people and caused one billion dollars in damage.
In June and July this year, a series of about 2,000 fires raged across the state, scorching some 900,000 acres of land, according to officials.
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The remains of a destroyed home burn beside a house that was spared, after a raging wildfire swept through the neighborhood in Montecito, California. Firefighters were battling a wind-driven wildfire that ripped through an exclusive California enclave, forcing celebrities, millionaires and thousands of residents to flee.
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