People flee as fires gut homes in California

SANTA BARBARA, California (AFP) - Firefighters were on Thursday picking over the smoldering rubble of a ferocious California wildfire that forced thousands to flee and destroyed at least 20 homes. The blaze in the upmarket coastal town of Santa Barbara, northwest of Los Angeles, exploded into life on Wednesday as powerful hot winds and record temperatures created a perfect storm of fire conditions. More than 13,000 residents of the picturesque city have been ordered to evacuate as an army of 1,400 firefighters battles to get a grip on the 1,300-acre (526-hectare) fire, which was zero percent contained. Ten firefighters had been injured in the fire. Three were hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation after a home they were protecting was suddenly engulfed by flames. The firefighters were in a stable condition Thursday. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency to help release resources to fight the blaze. Schwarzenegger, who toured the area early Thursday, told reporters at a morning briefing that firefighters were hampered by terrain and the weather. This fire has been a great challenge, theres no two ways about it, Schwarzenegger said. The 50 mph winds, the lack of access to the terrain and the dense brush all this creates great challenges. Schwarzenegger did not give a precise figure for the number of homes destroyed saying only that dozens and dozens had been raised. Authorities earlier said at least 20 homes had burned although that figure is expected to rise. A total of 5,400 homes had been evacuated while a further 3,500 homes were threatened, Schwarzenegger said. As dawn broke on Thursday, firefighters got a clearer picture of the devastation caused by the fire. Television footage showed several multi-million dollar mansions in the Santa Barbara foothills reduced to blackened shells as vast plumes of thick smoke shrouded the region. A lull in winds gave firefighters a brief respite early Thursday but authorities appealed to residents of the city on Thursday to be ready to evacuate their homes if necessary. Get out early thats our message, said Captain Dave Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. If youve been warned, that means pack your car. If youre told to evacuate that means put the keys in ignition and leave. The National Weather Service has issued a high-wind warning for the region sayings winds of up to 58 miles per hour could return later Thursday. California is frequently hit by scorching wildfires due to its dry climate, Santa Ana winds and recent housing booms that have seen housing spread rapidly into rural and densely forested areas. In 2007, California suffered devastation from wildfires among the worst in its history that left eight people dead, gutted 2,000 homes, displaced 640,000 people and caused one billion dollars in damage. Last November at least 100 homes were destroyed by a wildfire in the celebrity enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara.

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