New evacuations as huge southern California fire flares up

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More than 30,000 people are under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Barbara in southern California after wildfires burned more than 270 square miles of the state.

Authorities warned the raging fire was only 15% contained and that rate may fall because of the fire’s expected growth.

A powerful flare-up on the western edge of the region’s largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing on Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through old-growth brush in canyons and along hillsides toward coastal towns.

(Mike Eliason/AP)
(Mike Eliason/AP)

Crews with help from a fleet water-dropping planes and helicopters saved homes as unpredictable gusts sent the blaze deeper into residential foothill areas northwest of Los Angeles that haven’t burned in decades.

New evacuations were ordered as the fire sent up an enormous plume near Montecito and Carpinteria, seaside areas in Santa Barbara County that had been under fire threat for days and were now choked with smoke.

“The winds are kind of squirrely right now,” said county fire spokesman Mike Eliason. “Some places the smoke is going straight up in the air, and others it’s blowing sideways. Depends on what canyon we’re in.”

The department posted a photo of one residence engulfed in flames. It’s unclear whether other structures burned. Thousands of homes and businesses in the county were without power.

The air thick with acrid smoke, even residents of areas not under evacuation orders took the opportunity to leave, fearing another shutdown of US 101, a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week.

Officials handed out masks to residents who stayed behind in Montecito, the wealthy hillside enclave that’s home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Rob Lowe.

“Our house is under threat of being burned,” Ellen DeGeneres tweeted at midday Sunday. “We just had to evacuate our pets. I’m praying for everyone in our community and thankful to all the incredible firefighters.”

A few miles to the west, Santa Barbara Zoo was closed to the public and its 500 animals confined to their night quarters all day. The zoo was just outside the evacuation area, but smoke and ash blew through the 30-acre property.

Firefighters made significant progress Saturday on other fronts of the enormous fire that started December 4 in neighbouring Ventura County.

As containment increased on other major blazes in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties, resources from those fires were diverted to the Santa Barbara foothills.

(Mike Eliason/AP)
(Mike Eliason/AP)

Forecasters said Santa Ana winds that whipped fires across the region last week would continue in some areas at least through to Monday.

A lack of rain has officials on edge statewide because of parched conditions and no end in sight to the typical fire season.

“This is the new normal,” Governor Jerry Brown warned on Saturday after surveying damage from the deadly Ventura fire. “We’re about ready to have firefighting at Christmas. This is very odd and unusual.”

One death, so far, a 70-year-old woman who crashed her car on an evacuation route, is attributed to the fire in Santa Paula, a small city where the fire began.

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