A powerful flare-up on the western edge of Southern California’s largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through old-growth brush in canyons and along hillsides toward coastal towns.
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 U.S. 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 Dec. 4 in neighboring 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.
Forecasters said Santa Ana winds that whipped fires across the region last week would continue in some areas at least through 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,” Gov. Jerry Brown warned Saturday after surveying damage from the deadly Ventura fire. “We’re about ready to have firefighting at Christmas. This is very odd and unusual.”
High fire risk is expected to last into January and the governor and experts said climate change is making it a year-round threat.
Overall, the fires have destroyed about 800 homes and other buildings, killed dozens of horses and forced more than 200,000 people to flee flames that have burned over 270 square miles (700 square kilometers) since December 4. 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.
The Ventura County blaze also continued to burn into rugged mountains in the Los Padres National Forest near the little town of Ojai and toward a preserve established for endangered California condors.
Ojai experienced hazardous levels of smoke at times and officials warned of unhealthy air for large swaths of the region. The South Coast Air Quality Management District urged residents to stay indoors if possible and avoid vigorous outdoor activities.
As fires burned in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, firefighters were already in place north of San Diego on Thursday when a major fire erupted and rapidly spread in the Fallbrook area, known for its avocado groves and horse stables in the rolling hills.
The fire swept through the San Luis Rey Training Facility, where it killed more than 40 elite thoroughbreds and destroyed more than 100 homes — most of them in a retirement community. Three people were burned trying to escape the fire that continued to smolder Sunday.
Most of last week’s fires were in places that burned in the past, including one in the ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air that burned six homes and another in the city’s rugged foothills above the community of Sylmar and in Santa Paula.