Firefighters gain on California fire (Lead)

May 10th, 2009 - 12:11 am ICT by IANS  

Oprah Winfrey Los Angeles, May 9 (DPA) A layer of marine fog helped firefighters make progress against a wildfire that has burnt over 3,500 hectares and 80 houses in the upscale communities around Santa Barbara, California, authorities said Saturday.
Fire officials said the fire was 30 percent contained as over 4,200 personnel mobilised to attack the flames and prevent them reaching the city centre. Some 30,000 people were evacuated and another 20,000 people were placed on evacuation alert as the fire spread across an eight-km front Friday in the mountains and canyons above the oceanfront city.

About 4,200 firefighters, as well as 500 engines, 10 air tankers and 10 helicopters, were fighting the fire. They were helped by a DC-10 air tanker which joined the fight Friday, dropping some 50,000 litres of bright orange fire retardant on the ridge tops in an effort to stop the relentless march of the flames.

While the fog layer, lower temperatures and calmer winds were a major help in stemming the spread of the blaze, fire officials were cautious because of the potential for strong “sundowner” winds to return Saturday night.

“The winds could surface, change back around and blow the fire back downhill,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin.

“There will be a point in the incident when I will have cautious optimism but I’m not there yet,” fire commander Joe Waterman said.

Nevertheless the comments were a marked contrast to the dire prognosis issued a day earlier when officials said that “all hell broke loose,” across an eight-km fire front above the city.

Spectacular television pictures showed a wall of fire scorching through hillsides and canyons covered in forests, brush and magnificent houses. The blaze had burned 75 homes, many of them luxurious mansions in an area famed for its natural beauty and its celebrity residents, such as Oprah Winfrey.

The Jesusita fire was ignited Tuesday but exploded out of control Wednesday, fed by the so-called Sundowner winds of up to 80 km an hour. Ever since, the fire has sent glowing clouds of embers and thick blankets of smoke across the Pacific coast mountainsides and towards the densely populated town.

Coming so early in the season, the destructive fire in areas of luxury homes has underscored the growing threat facing California as climate change makes wildfires hotter, bigger and more frequent. The fire came six months after a blaze in the same area burned more than 200 houses. It was the third blaze there in nine months.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency Wednesday and toured the site of the fire Thursday.

“This fire has been a great challenge, there’s no two ways about it,” he said during a tour of the area.

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