Lull in winds aids fight against Calif. wildfire

SANTA BARBARA, Calif: Firefighters took advantage of a lull in winds on Tuesday to gain ground against a forest fire in mountains northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif., as some crews were diverted to a second fire that broke out nearby and jumped two highways.

The Santa Barbara County blaze erupted Monday in Los Padres National Forest, carving its way through 3.2 square miles of dry chaparral, oak and pine. Firefighters had it 65 percent contained by sunset Tuesday, despite feared wind gusts of up to 40 mph, fire spokesman Manuel Madrigal said.

More than 600 firefighters, supported by a dozen aircraft, were on the lines about 10 miles northwest of downtown Santa Barbara.

At the fire’s height, thousands of campers and day visitors scrambled out of the forest on the Memorial Day holiday. The fire also prompted the evacuation of about 50 homes, mainly cabins and vacation rentals, but residents were allowed to return home Tuesday night.

The fire, which remained under investigation, burned two vehicles and a U.S. Forest Service garage.

Winds were calm through midday, and the blaze was moving east along the Santa Ynez Mountainsnorthwest of Santa Barbara.

Crews were worried, however, that a wind change could push the fire south toward the scenic coastal city, county fire Capt. David Sadecki said.

“There’s a lot of dry vegetation in its path,” Sadecki said. “It’s still spring — it’s not even summer — and it’s burning like it’s August or September.”

The fire was burning near Paradise Road, which meanders along the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Santa Barbara and neighboring communities sit on the other side of the coastal range, which rises quickly from near the Pacific shoreline to peaks topping 3,000 feet.

Later Tuesday, a second wildfire broke out in the nearby wine country hills of Santa Ynez at about 3:30 p.m.

It quickly grew to 170 acres, jumping Highway 154 and 246, but dozens of firefighters and two water-dropping helicopters stopped its forward movement, Sadecki said.

The Sheriff’s Department sent out an evacuation warning to roughly 2,000 people living in the city that is home to many horse ranches and vineyards.

Despite its bucolic setting, the area 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles has seen terrible wildfires, including a 1990 blaze that destroyed 641 structures, most of them homes. The summer of 2007 was marred by a gigantic fire that erupted on July 4 and burned for months.

A new blaze flared just before noon Tuesday near the Magic Mountain theme park and Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles. It quickly consumed 55 acres of brush, but was 80 percent contained and expected to be surrounded after hundreds of Los Angeles County firefighters responded with air support.