Fierce California wildfire burns into fourth night

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The Independent US

A California wildfire burned for a fourth day yesterday above the seaside town of Santa Barbara as firefighters battled flames that have damaged or destroyed 80 homes.

Another 3,500 homes and about 100 businesses remained in immediate jeopardy from the so-called Jesusita fire, which had blackened more than 8,600 acres in the foothills above the picturesque community, according to an update by the Santa Barbara Fire Department late last night. It destroyed 80 homes and forced thousands of people to flee.

No civilian casualties have been reported so far but the blaze has injured 11 firefighters, three of them hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation.

Crews battling days of hot, dry erratic winds have made little progress in controlling the firestorm.

The most dangerous time of day has proven to be nightfall, when the hot, unpredictable "sundowner" winds pick up and fan the flames through steep canyons into neighborhoods of multimillion-dollar homes.

"We have an onshore condition and when the air is coming off the ocean the humidity is fairly high and pushes the fire back away from the community," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin told a late-afternoon news conference.

"And both of those things are good for now but the predictions are that the sundowner condition is still there," Franklin said. "The wind could change and blow the fire downhill."

As of yesterday evening, about 21,000 area residents were under a mandatory evacuation order with another 10,000 warned that they should be ready to get out at a moment's notice, county officials said.

That amounts to more than half of the population of Santa Barbara, located 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

"Right now, if you are not evacuated in the Santa Barbara area, you are sheltering evacuees," city Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio told Reporters. "This has affected the entire community."

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.

Supermodel-turned clothing designer Kathy Ireland was among those who had to flee the fire.

"Santa Barbara fires ... We are OK!" she wrote on her Twitter page on yesterday afternoon. "Being evacuated, pls pray for all! Finding place 2stay .. will be in touch when can Thanks! God bless you."

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