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California fire sends 20,000 fleeing, burns 75 homes

A stubborn brush fire that consumed 75 foothill homes above the coastal town of Santa Barbara raged with renewed ferocity for a fourth day on Friday, forcing at least 20,000 people to flee as it advanced on the city and two nearby communities.

world Updated: May 08, 2009 23:16 IST

A stubborn brush fire that consumed 75 foothill homes above the coastal town of Santa Barbara raged with renewed ferocity for a fourth day on Friday, forcing at least 20,000 people to flee as it advanced on the city and two nearby communities.

The conflagration, marking the fourth wildfire to strike the affluent, picturesque Santa Barbara area in two years, had charred some 3,500 acres (1,400 hectares) by daybreak after a night of hot, dry erratic winds that drove flames across a highway and through more homes.

"Literally, last night, all hell broke loose," city Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio told reporters. "We saw the fire spread laterally across the top of the city and the fire front extend to almost 5 miles (8 km) now."

He said fire crews fought a heroic battle to keep the blaze from pushing southward through a key park and into the city proper while other teams scrambled to put out roof fires at the edge of town.

The evacuation area was expanded overnight as the eastern and western flanks advanced on the neighboring communities of Montecito and Goleta.

As of Friday morning, more than 20,000 area residents were ordered to leave their homes and nearly 17,000 others were warned to be ready to flee at a moment's notice, county officials said. That amounts to over a third of the population of

Santa Barbara, located 90 miles (145 km) northwest of Los Angeles. "Right now, if you are not evacuated in the Santa Barbara area, you are sheltering evacuees," DiMizio said. "This has affected the entire community."

State fire officials reported that an estimated 75 homes have been lost since the fire erupted Tuesday above the city and spread into hillside enclaves of multimillion-dollar mansions.

Another 3,500 homes and about 100 businesses remained in immediate jeopardy, authorities said. No civilian casualties have been reported so far, but the blaze has injured 11 firefighters, three of whom were hospitalized with serious burns and smoke inhalation after a fire engine was overrun by flames on Wednesday.

Firefighters managed to establish a containment line around 10 percent of the fire on Thursday, as winds calmed down during the day, but intermittently strong gusts blowing in from the desert were expected to remain a factor into Saturday.

Joe Waterman, the state fire commander on the scene, told reporters he expected the force of 2,300 firefighters to get some additional help later in the day from the state's specially equipped water-dropping DC-10 jet. Firefighters' aerial arsenal already includes several smaller planes and some 15 helicopters.

The area's last major brush fire, in November 2008, destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and surrounding communities. The blaze was blamed on a bonfire started by local students. The latest fire remains under investigation.