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California wildfire destroys 20 homes at the sea

AN out-of-control, wind-driven wildfire bore down on Santa Barbara yesterday, destroying some 20 homes in the rugged central California foothills, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate and injuring three firefighters.

The fire, which ignited in the dry brush on Tuesday and was being investigated as an arson, had blackened some 500 acres around picturesque Santa Barbara by nightfall, leaving behind smoldering, burned out husks where multimillion-dollar mansions once stood.

Authorities said the pall of thick black smoke hanging over Santa Barbara made it difficult to tell how many of the large hillside homes had gone up in flames but believed at least 20 had been burned to the ground.

Entire neighborhoods remained in jeopardy as more than 900 firefighters struggled to make headway against flames whipped by hot, dry Santa Ana winds through steep and sometimes inaccessible canyons.

"We are in a state of extreme emergency," Santa Barbara County Fire spokesman David Sadecki said. "We're running very, very thin."


Sadecki said the blaze was difficult to fight because of the seaside community's "extreme weather" -- temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds gusting at up to 50 miles per hour.

The three firefighters suffered burn and respiratory injuries when their engine was engulfed in flame, its hoses burned through, as they tried to protect a home. All three men were taken by helicopter to a Los Angeles-area burn center for treatment.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County, a move that frees up additional funds and equipment.

Though the fire slowed as winds eased late last night, officials worried that it was burning in the direction of downtown Santa Barbara and residents there were told they may need to evacuate overnight.

The firefighters were hoping for a break from the weather today, but weather experts predicted that the Santa Ana winds, which blow in from the California desert, would persist at least another day.

Santa Barbara County was asking for aid from fire crews across the state and said they expected some 100 engines and 400 firefighters, although other California communities were keeping a wary on their own dry hillsides.

Meanwhile in Arizona, firefighters battled a 4,200-acre (1,700-hectare) brush fire that broke out on Tuesday in a mountainous area 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Tucson.

The blaze set in grass and woodland near Sierra Vista torched three homes and several vehicles and outbuildings.

A local homeowner was taken to a burn unit at a hospital in Phoenix for treatment, US Forest Service spokeswoman Celeste Gordon said. His condition late on Wednesday was not immediately known.

Last November, more than 200 homes were destroyed in Santa Barbara and surrounding communities in a brush fire that was blamed on a campfire started by local students.


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