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Published: 5/8/2009

Wildfires menace again in California; 13,000 flee

ASSOCIATED PRESS

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Paradise is not lost, but it's in flames - again.

The seasonal wildfires that menace this idyllic coastal city roared to life earlier than usual but with all-too-familiar ferocity, burning mansions to their foundations and forcing more than 13,000 to flee. Dozens of homes were destroyed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

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

The fire was just the latest to ravage the area known as the American Riviera, home to screen stars, former presidents, and Oprah Winfrey. The blaze reached the burn area of another wildfire that just six months ago destroyed about 200 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito.

The latest 1,300-acre fire remained out of control and firefighters were on alert for a predicted return of a "sundowner" - fierce winds that sweep down late in the day from the Santa Ynez Mountains towering close behind Santa Barbara.

A sundowner on Wednesday afternoon turned a slumbering brush fire on rugged slopes above the city into a towering wildfire that hurled flames into homes and spit embers into more distant neighborhoods.

Some 5,400 homes were evacuated, and another 13,000 people were advised to be ready to leave.

"It started firestorming dramatically," said Gregg Patronyk, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident who grabbed a hose and started wetting his roof when he saw other houses ablaze. "The fire got within 200 to 300 feet of my house.

"There was a lot of pressure to leave," he said. "Police wanted me out and I got a frantic call from my sister, who was walking up the hill to get me. So I packed up the car and left, picking her up on the way."

Nearly 1,400 firefighters from many departments were on the lines, aided by aircraft.

Authorities reported 10 firefighters injured, including three who sheltered in a house during a firestorm. They were in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center, but two faced surgery. Other injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to ankle sprains.

There were no specific numbers available on property losses.

Elsewhere, a southern New Mexico wildfire destroyed three homes and damaged a fourth near the small mountain community of Timberon. It also burned five outbuildings, such as sheds and garages, and 10 vehicles, fire information officer Darlene Hart said. Twenty homes were evacuated.

In southeastern Arizona, winds cooperated yesterday in holding down a wildfire that had destroyed three homes and critically injured a man, officials said. That blaze was 30 percent contained.



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