Fast-moving fire threatens homes in Santa Barbara County

A firefighter battles the Cave fire in Los Padres National Forest near East Camino Cielo, California, U.S. November 25, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/via REUTERS

By Subrat Patnaik

(Reuters) – Fire ripped through brush and woodland on hills above the Californian city of Santa Barbara early on Tuesday, forcing residents to leave their homes, authorities said.

The Santa Barbara County declared a local emergency at 10:30 p.m (0630 GMT) on Monday night, after a fire broke out in Los Padres National Forest at about 4:15 p.m.

The flames spread quickly to cover about 3,000 acres by the evening and have not yet been contained, Santa Barbara County said in a statement.

Firefighters battle flames off Highway 154 north of Santa Barbara, California, U.S. November 25, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/via REUTERS

Firefighters battle flames off Highway 154 north of Santa Barbara, California, U.S. November 25, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/via REUTERS

“An evacuation warning is being issued for the area north of Foothill Road and Ontare to Gibraltar Road,” the office said, referring to areas north of the city.

The blaze, dubbed the “cave fire”, started near East Camino Cielo and Painted Cave Road in the forest.

“The Cave Fire is advancing toward major population areas in the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta,” the county said.

Firefighters from neighboring areas were rushing to Santa Barbara to help the local service control the blaze, authorities said.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Ed Osmond)

Major highway reopened as California mudslides toll climbs to 21

Workers on the 101 Highway clear mud and debris from the roadway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 12, 2018.

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) – California’s iconic Highway 101 in Santa Barbara reopened on Sunday nearly two weeks after it was covered with 12 feet (3.7 meters) of debris from mudslides, and a day after the discovery of a missing woman’s body pushed the death toll to 21.

Torrential rains triggered the Jan. 9 mudslides, which injured dozens more people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings around the affluent community of Montecito, 85 miles (137 km) northwest of Los Angeles.

The reopening of the busy north-south coastal highway followed what the state transportation agency Caltrans called a “Herculean effort,” and was expected to ease hours-long detours and traffic chaos that bedeviled commuters.

Cleanup crews had been working around the clock in 12-hour shifts, officials said, while ferry boats had been making commuter runs twice a day between Santa Barbara and Ventura to help residents trying to get to work.

Search and rescue teams continued working with dogs on Sunday in Montecito to look for a two-year-old and a 17-year-old who are still missing, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.

On Saturday the teams found the body of missing 28-year-old Faviola Benitez Calderon, of Montecito. She belonged to a family that lost several members in the disaster.

“The Sheriff’s Office wants to express our deepest condolences to the Benitez family, who were already mourning the loss of Faviola’s 10-year-old son, Jonathan Benitez and his cousin 3-year-old Kailly Benitez, as well as Kailly’s mother, 27-year-old Marilyn Ramos,” the office said in a statement.

The discovery of Calderon’s body brought the number of fatalities to 21. The toll had already marked the greatest loss of life from a California mudslide in at least 13 years.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

California mudslide death toll up to 15 as rescues continue

Emergency personnel carry a woman rescued from a collapsed house after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California rescuers worked through the night plucking stranded Santa Barbara residents from mudslides that have killed at least 15 people and devastated the coastal community after it was drenched by rain, authorities said on Wednesday.

The death toll could go higher still as rescuers continued searching for victims, mostly in the upscale enclave of Montecito – where mudslides slammed into homes, covered highways and swept away vehicles – officials warned.

“We don’t know how many additional people are still trapped,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on the “CBS This Morning” program. “We know there are some, and we’re still making our way into certain areas of Montecito and the adjacent areas to determine if anyone is still there and still alive.”

An aerial view from a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view from a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Ventura County Sheriff’s Office/via REUTERS

The mudslides followed an ordeal of fire and water for the area northwest of Los Angeles. A torrential downpour on Tuesday soaked the area, which was left vulnerable after much of its vegetation burned in the state’s largest wildfire last month.

Forecasters were calling for clear skies on Wednesday.

Emergency workers began their task on Tuesday using search dogs and helicopters to rescue dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the normally pristine area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest.

A 14-year-old girl was found alive on Tuesday after firefighters using rescue dogs heard cries for help from what was left of her Montecito home, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I thought I was dead there for a minute,” the teenager Lauren Cantin, covered in mud, told NBC News after workers spent six hours rescuing her.

Rescuers worked through the night, searching for victims amid the dozens of homes that were destroyed, and using helicopters to lift more than 50 stranded residents from the mud.

“We’re finding people continuously,” said Yaneris Muniz, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Joint Information Center. “We had a helicopter and several crews out all night, and now that it’s day, we’ll be able to intensify those searches.”

Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.

About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs through flooded waters after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs through flooded waters after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara News-Press via REUTERS

The county initially ordered 7,000 residents to evacuate and urged another 23,000 to do so voluntarily, but only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, where some people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.

The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles south of the latest disaster.

Last month’s wildfires, the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that hold the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

Some local residents had to flee their homes due to the fires last month and again this week because of the rains.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Thousands in California flee homes ahead of possible mudslides

California wildfire fight aided by better weather

(Reuters) – Thousands of Southern Californians fled their homes on Monday as a powerful rain storm that could cause flash floods and trigger mudslides soaked steep slopes where a series of intense wildfires burned off vegetation last month.

Heavy downpours that could produce more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) of rain per hour were expected through Tuesday evening, forcing officials to order or advise Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles county residents who live near where wildfires burned to evacuated their homes.

“Recent burn areas will be especially vulnerable where dangerous mud and debris flows are possible,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.

Several December wildfires, included a blaze known as the Thomas Fire which was the largest in the state’s history, burned away vegetation that holds the soil in place and baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

About 30,000 residents were under evacuation orders or advisories on Monday, ABC news reported.

“I’m just tired. I can’t seem to get my life kick-started,” Teri Lebow, whose Montecito, California was damaged by the wildfires, told the Los Angeles Times.

The storm system was expected to produce 4 inches to 7 inches (10 to 18 cm) in the foothills and mountains with 9 inches (23 cm) in isolated areas. Three inches (7 cm) to two feet (61 cm) of snow was also forecast for higher elevations, the National Weather Service said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

California wildfire crews gain edge as last evacuation orders lifted

Firefighters keep watch on the Thomas wildfire in the hills and canyons outside Montecito, California, U.S., December 16, 2017.

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews battling to subdue the remnants of a sprawling Southern California wildfire gained more ground on Thursday after a resurgence of winds proved weaker than expected, allowing officials to lift all remaining evacuation orders and warnings.

The so-called Thomas fire, California’s second-largest on record, has charred 272,600 acres (110,317 hectares) of coastal mountains, foothills and canyons across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties northwest of Los Angeles, fire officials said.

The fire’s spread was largely halted this week as crews extended safety buffer lines around most of its perimeter, hacking away thick chaparral and brush before it could ignite and torching some vegetation in controlled-burning operations.

Containment of the fire grew to 65 percent on Thursday, up from 60 percent a day earlier.

Much of the progress was made during three days in which diminished winds, cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels allowed firefighters to go on the attack against a blaze that had kept them on the defensive for the better part of two weeks.

A new bout of strong winds had been forecast to accelerate to 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour) on Thursday morning, stoking extreme fire conditions again, but turned out to be less forceful than expected, authorities said.

“We didn’t really see the winds that were predicted,” said Brandon Vaccaro, a spokesman for the firefighting command. Containment lines already carved around populated areas “held really well,” he said.

More than 1,000 homes and other structures were destroyed and well over 100,000 people were forced to flee their dwellings at the height of the fire storm, but abandoned communities were gradually reopened to residents this week.

On Thursday, authorities canceled the last evacuation notices still in effect for Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Only one fatality directly related to the fire has been reported, a firefighter who succumbed to burns and smoke inhalation in the line of duty last Thursday.

As the fire threat waned, the number of personnel assigned to fight the blaze has been scaled back to about 4,700, down from 8,500 at the fire’s peak.

In terms of burned landscape, the Thomas fire ranks a close second to California’s largest wildfire on record, the 2003 Cedar blaze in San Diego County, which consumed 273,246 acres (110,579 hectares) and killed 15 people.

The Thomas fire erupted Dec. 4 and was fanned by hot, dry Santa Ana winds blowing with rare hurricane force from the eastern deserts, spreading flames across miles of Southern California’s rugged, drought-parched coastal terrain.

Forecasts called for a return of mild Santa Ana gusts late on Thursday, “but it shouldn’t be anything that really challenges us,” Vaccaro said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has estimated the cost of fighting the blaze at more than $167 million. The cause has not been determined.

The Thomas fire came two months after a spate of wind-driven blazes in Northern California’s wine country incinerated several thousand homes and killed more than 40 people, ranking as the deadliest rash of wildfires, and one of the most destructive, in state history.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)

Lighter winds early this week may help battle against California wildfire

Firefighters keep watch on the Thomas wildfire in the hills and canyons outside Montecito, California, U.S., December 16, 2017.

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) – Lighter winds expected in California early this week should help firefighters in their battle against one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in the state’s history, the National Weather Service has said.

By late on Sunday, more than 8,500 firefighters had contained about 45 percent of the fire in Southern California. Dubbed the Thomas fire, it began Dec. 4 and has scorched 270,000 acres (109,000 hectares) along the scenic Pacific Coast north of Los Angeles.

Its size is approaching that of the 2003 Cedar blaze in San Diego County, the largest wildfire in state history, which consumed 273,246 acres and caused 15 deaths.

While wind and low humidity will still create dangerous fire conditions, “improving weather conditions should allow firefighters to make progress on the fire” on Monday and Tuesday, the National Weather Service said on Twitter.

Officials said calmer winds also helped make Sunday one of their most productive days yet battling a blaze that has been fueled by fierce Santa Ana winds sweeping in from eastern California deserts.

“We’re just hoping to make it home for Christmas,” Bakersfield Fire Department Captain Tim Ortiz said Sunday at a recreation center in Santa Barbara serving as a staging area and base camp for more than 3,000 firefighters.

The fire has destroyed more than 1,000 structures and threatened 18,000 others. Centered less than 100 miles (160 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, it has forced more than 104,000 people to evacuate or seek shelter.

On Sunday firefighters paid their respects during a funeral procession for Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson, 32, who died of smoke inhalation and burns on Thursday while battling the flames near the Ventura County community of Fillmore.

Firefighters lined spots along the procession route that ran from Ventura County to his home near San Diego.

So far it has cost $123.8 million to battle the Thomas fire, which has forced many schools and roads to close for days and created poor air quality throughout southern California.

“I’ve seen people who have lost everything,” said Larry Dennis, 60, who sought refuge at a Ventura shelter Sunday after the blaze inundated the region with smoke and turned nearby hillsides red. Several areas of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties also saw evacuation orders lifted Sunday, Cal Fire said.

Five of the 20 most destructive fires in recorded history have ravaged the state in 2017, according to Cal Fire. The cause of the Thomas fire remains under investigation.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

California wildfire close to becoming third largest ever in state

Thomas wildfire burns above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon in this social media photo by Santa Barbara County Fire Department in Montecito, California, U.S. December 12, 2017. Courtesy Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A California wildfire was close on Saturday to becoming the state’s third largest blaze on record, with more devastation possible from a resurgence of the harsh winds that have fueled the deadly fire’s growth.

The so-called Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including about 750 homes, in coastal communities in Southern California since erupting on Dec. 4, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement.

It has cost $97 million to fight the 256,000-acre (103,600-hectare) blaze, with thousands of firefighters contending with it around the clock and helicopters and airplanes being used to drop retardant on the flames.

Firefighters continue to battle the Thomas fire, a wildfire near Fillmore, California, December 14, 2017.

Firefighters continue to battle the Thomas fire, a wildfire near Fillmore, California, December 14, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

The vast landscape charred by the blaze, which is centered less than 100 miles (161 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, is approaching the 257,314 acres (104,131 hectares) destroyed by California’s Rim Fire in 2013. The Rim Fire is the third-largest blaze on record in the state.

The Thomas Fire is only 35 percent contained and it threatens 18,000 structures, officials said, including some in the wealthy enclave of Montecito just outside the city of Santa Barbara. The blaze is chewing up tall grass and brush as it expands along the scenic Pacific Coast.

The hot Santa Ana winds that have helped the fire grow, at times sending embers far ahead of its main flank, were forecast to remain strong through Saturday evening in the Santa Barbara County mountains, the National Weather Service warned. Gusts of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) were expected.

From Saturday night through Sunday evening, the winds could lash neighboring Ventura County, the Weather Service said. That is where the Thomas Fire first began due to unknown causes, and where it was still burning.

Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson, 32, died on Thursday while battling the flames near the Ventura County community of Fillmore. Fire officials said Iverson, the blaze’s first fatality, left behind a pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter.

The Thomas Fire was one of several major blazes that broke out in Southern California this month, although the others have been contained.

The blazes forced many schools to close for days, shut roads and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. The fires were also responsible for poor air quality throughout Southern California.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Mark Potter)

Weary firefighters brace for second week battling California wildfire

A fire crew passes a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura.

By Phoenix Tso

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Crews battling a massive wind-driven California wildfire that has torched nearly 800 buildings and charred 230,000 acres are bracing on Monday to protect communities menaced by flames along the state’s scenic coastline.

The Thomas Fire ignited last week and is burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“Fire will continue to threaten the communities of Carpenteria, Summerland, Montecito and surrounding areas,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)said in a Sunday night update.

Santa Ana winds and the rugged mountainous terrain have hindered firefighters as they battle the blaze, which has destroyed 790 houses, outbuildings and other structures and left 90,000 homes and businesses without power.

“A lot of these guys (firefighters) have fought a lot of fires in the past few months and are fatigued,” said Fire Captain Steve Concialdi, spokesman for the Thomas Fire.

Concialdi said firefighters from 11 Western states are aiding firefighting efforts.

The fire is 10 percent contained, down from 15 percent on Saturday after it blew up on Sunday, growing by 56,000 acres in one day and making a run of 7 miles, Concialdi said.

Nearly 5,800 firefighting personnel are working on the blaze, Cal Fire said. The cost of fighting as of Sunday was nearly $34 million, the agency added. It is already the fifth-largest wildfire on record in California.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, final exams set for this week have been postponed, Chancellor Henry Yang said in a letter to the campus community. Air quality and transportation issues, along with power outages that have affected the school’s information technology department, forced the delay of exams until January.

Some of the other fires burning over the past week in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been largely controlled by the thousands of firefighters on the ground this week.

Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 90 percent contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in the posh Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles was 75 percent contained.

North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre (1,660 hectare) Lilac Fire was 75 percent contained by Sunday and most evacuation orders had been lifted.

(Reporting by Phoenix Tso; Additional reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Keith Coffman in Denver; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Graff)