As of 4 a.m. today, the size of the Tea Fire – so named because the fire is believed to have started near the Tea Gardens north of Westmont College – was at 3,000 acres.
With sundowner winds reaching more than 70 miles per hour pushing the third major Santa Barbara fire in 15 months every which way but out, the fire has destroyed dozens of homes. “We’re talking well over 100 homes,” said City Fire Chief Ron Prince. He and several city, county, and state officials gathered at the Montecito Fire District on San Ysidro Road for a morning briefing. Another is expected this afternoon, although the time is uncertain.
Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown, who flew over the fire in a plane this morning, described the fire as a large triangle, with the three points approximately being St. Mary’s Seminary to the west, the upper Riviera to the south, and Westmont College to the east. He personally counted more than 80 homes burned, and also reported that Mt. Calvary Monastery had burned. As previously reported, several structures on the campus of Westmont College burned.
Pat McElroy of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, one of the incident commanders for the Tea Fire, said that on the west end, the fire is creeping toward Mission Canyon, and on the east end is in Cold Spring Canyon. To the north the fire is in Los Padres National Forest, Rattlesnake Canyon, and the Old Mountain Drive area. To the south the fire is creeping near Sycamore Canyon Road, with the threat it could still get to the city. Hand crews are working on the fire on the west and east ends, while fire engines and crews dot the hills throughout, trying to protect homes from the fire.
Fire in chaparral that hadn’t burned in decades amid conditions “dry as a bone,” as County Fire Chief John Scherrei put it – during one of the driest years in history, according to Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace – was pushed by the howling winds.
The winds have slowed quite a bit this morning compared to the winds seen by firefighters last night, but officials are looking at the potential of strong winds this afternoon and this evening with caution. Temperatures are already hot in the area.
The Montecito Fire District had extra staff and resources on hand in anticipation of the fire, but “Mother Nature pretty much took over,” Wallace said. By now, with fire crews coming as far away as Los Angeles County, there are more than 1,000 firefighters battling the flames. By the time crews originally reached the fire, it had already gotten out of hand.
There is no timetable for containment, and firefighting teams are focused on “protecting lives and structures,” Wallace said. “We’re not even looking at containment right now.” Officials have an idea of where the fire started, but no ideas yet of how. Brown described the Tea Garden as a “private, fenced-in area.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County, meaning additional resources are on their way. It also means the state will pick up the tab on approximately 75 percent of the cost of the fire, according to Assemblymember Pedro Nava, who wrote a letter to the governor asking for the declaration. Federal aid has also been secured.
The city and county emergency operations centers are up and running, and kiosks are being set up at City Hall, Loreto Plaza, and La Cumbre Plaza with information.
One person has been arrested because they didn’t belong in the evacuated burn area, according to Police Department officials. Other than that, Deputy Police Chief Rich Glaus said, people have been cooperative, and evacuation efforts have gone exactly as planned. “It’s been a very, very orderly process,” he said. Despite heavy traffic because the fire began at about 5:45 p.m.-just as people were getting off work-police were able to control the narrow roads of Montecito and keep people safe. There have been no reports of looting. Officials didn’t have a count of people evacuated, but estimated that 2,500 homes had been evacuated.
Evacuation orders are still in effect:
North of 192 between Hot Springs and Mission Canyon
All of Sycamore Canyon
North of 192 between Sycamore Canyon and Gibraltar Road
Hot Springs (eastern boundary) to Tunnel Road (western boundary) from Hwy 192 at Hot Springs to Barker Pass to Alameda Padre Sierra (southern boundary) to Camino Cielo (northern boundary)
Both sides of Tunnel Road above Montrose
Only residents on the east side of Tunnel Road below Montrose
Residents on Gibraltar Road above the west fork of the Cold Springs Trail should evacuate to the north via Camino Cielo. Residents below the west fork should evacuate to the south.
Evacuation warnings issued for these areas:
North of 192 from Hot Springs Road east to San Ysidro Road
Mission Canyon north of Foothill Road to Tunnel Road west on Foothill to Ontare Road, Ontare Road north of Foothill Road
Bordered on the north by Alameda Padre Sierra, on the east by Montecito Street to Milpas, Milpas to Anapamu, Anapamu to Laguna, and Laguna to Los Olivos, and Los Olivos to Alameda Padre Sierra
The potential is still there for the fire to race in the city, Scherrei said. “I’m surprised we haven’t lost 500 homes at this point.”
There is no timetable for when people can return to homes if they’ve been evacuated, and officials are asking for patience to ensure residents’ safety.
Officials report a total of seven people injured by the fire, including at least two who were taken to a Sherman Oaks burn center. There are about 200 evacuated residents at San Marcos High School.
At least 10 helicopters will be dropping water and retardant on the fire today, in addition to about 10 tankers. And they announced this morning a DC-10 is being brought in to douse the northern boundary. Residents are being asked to conserve water.
For more information:
County Call Center 681-5197
Knight Broadcasting: KUHL-1410 AM, KINF-1440 AM, KRAZ-105.9 FM, and KSYV-96.7 FM
Rincon Broadcasting: KTMS-990 AM, KTYD-99.9 FM, KSBL-101.7 FM
Rincon’s Spanish language stations: KSPE-94.5 FM and KIST-107.7 FM
UCSB: KCSB-91.9 FM
News-Press Radio: KZSB 1290 AM
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