MONTECITO, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters trying to prevent one of the biggest fires in California’s history from consuming homes in Santa Barbara and the nearby wealthy enclave of Montecito were hoping less powerful wind gusts would help them Sunday after they managed to stop it from burning thousands of residences.
Crews took advantage of calmer winds overnight, clearing brush and digging containment lines above hillside neighborhoods, fire information officer Lisa Cox said.
“Everything’s holding really well,” Cox said. While gusts were expected to ease somewhat, even the lower intensity winds are still extremely dangerous, she said.
The fire that started nearly two weeks ago has burned at least 700 residences and killed a firefighter, but Cox said firefighters saved thousands of homes from being destroyed.
Some evacuations were lifted to the east in Ventura County where the blaze erupted and officials reported progress protecting the inland agricultural city of Fillmore.
Mandatory evacuations remained in place around Montecito and neighboring Summerland as firefighters sprayed water onto hot spots sparked by wind-blown embers. A portion of the city of Santa Barbara was under mandatory evacuation. At the city’s zoo, workers put some animals into crates and kennels to ready them for possible evacuation.
Santa Barbara Zoo prepared for evacuation Saturday as California fires spread. Although the zoo itself has not been told to evacuate, neighboring areas were told to leave. Zoo Keepers are preparing head lamps in the event of a night evacuation. (Dec. 16)
In downtown Santa Barbara, Maya Schoop-Rutten, owner of Chocolate Maya, said she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear Saturday after strong winds blew through.
“It was absolutely incredible,” she said. “There was a huge mushroom of smoke that happened in just a matter of a few minutes.”
Restaurants and small stores on normally bustling State Street were shuttered Saturday.
“It’s a ghost town,” Schoop-Rutten said. “It’s very, very eerie.”
The 420-square-mile (1,085-square-kilometer) blaze called the Thomas Fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.
Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.
“Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters,” Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.
Pierre Henry, owner of the Bree’osh Bakery in Montecito, said he got a text to evacuate Saturday morning as the fire approached homes.