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California wildfire intensifies, closing on dense populations

UNITED States firefighters struggled to get ahead of a raging wildfire yesterday that was moving dangerously close to heavily populated areas in Santa Barbara, an idyllic coastal city in California, and had forced the evacuation of an estimated 30,000 residents.

Neighborhoods of multimillion dollar mansions stood like ghost towns, bathed in the eerie orange glow cast by the nearby blaze.

Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Jodi Dyck said yesterday morning that the fire had grown since the night before, when it measured roughly 1,100 hectares, or 10 square kilometers. She did not have an updated estimates of the fire's size or burned acreage.

"It really got going during the night ... The wind is all over the place," Santa Barbara city fire Captain Mike De Pont said. "For this time of year this activity is unusual."

Roughly 12,000 more residents have been ordered to leave their homes, including those living in a densely populated area north of US 101 that's home to several mobile-home parks. An estimated 18,000 previously were ordered to leave.

A second evacuation shelter was opened on Thursday to accommodate 900 additional evacuees. All 190 beds were filled at the first shelter at a high school.

The blaze was approaching homes in the city's more populated, flat area below its steep canyons. Santa Barbara city fire spokesman Gary Pitney said flames jumped a road dividing the hilly terrain from the flatlands below and ignited spot fires in brush surrounding houses.

Pitney said the fire also pushed west across state Route 154, the key thoroughfare between Santa Barbara and wine country to the north.

Kelley Gouette, a deputy incident commander with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, likened the fire to "a blowtorch" and said he had requested that officials bring in a DC-10 to drop larger loads of water on the blaze.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said the blaze was particularly tough to fight as it spread into rugged terrain with thick brush that served as fuel and limited firefighting aircraft.

Firefighters are "running pretty thin on equipment," he said.

Officials said 11 firefighters were injured, including three who were burned when they sheltered in a house during a firestorm. They were reported to be recovering.


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