Thousands flee California wildfires

Strong winds and 100-degree heat have fueled fires like the one that claimed this house Thursday in Santa Barbara, Calif. It was the area’s third major wildfire in a year.

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Strong winds and 100-degree heat have fueled fires like the one that claimed this house Thursday in Santa Barbara, Calif. It was the area’s third major wildfire in a year.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The seasonal wildfires that menace this idyllic coastal city roared to life earlier than usual but with all-too-familiar ferocity, damaging or destroying 75 homes and forcing more than 13,500 people to flee.

"I knew it was time to leave," said Tom Morse, 62, a day after he dusted off his motor home as the fire neared his Mission Canyon Heights house. "I could see the flames getting close."

The 4-square-mile fire was just the latest to ravage the area known as the American Riviera, home to screen stars, former presidents and Oprah Winfrey.

Fire officials said the "sundowner," winds that sweep down from the Santa Ynez Mountains, were much calmer Thursday than Wednesday, when they fanned the flames to towering intensity.

Some 4,700 homes were evacuated Wednesday, and another 13,000 people were advised Thursday to be ready to leave.

One fire commander said about 3,500 homes were still threatened Thursday evening.

What wind that did kick up Thursday blew from the ocean, pushing the fire up into the mountains and away from homes, firefighters said.

Nearly 1,400 firefighters from many departments were on the lines, aided by aircraft, but the fire was just 10 percent contained late Thursday, authorities said.

Information from the Los Angeles times and Associated press was used in this report.

Thousands flee California wildfires 05/07/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 12:11am]

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