Scores of Homes Burn as Epic Fire Engulfs SB, Montecito
By Travis Miller / Staff Writer

An enormous blaze — dubbed the Tea Fire –ripped through the hills above Santa Barbara last night, potentially burning over a hundred homes and threatening thousands more. As of press time, the fire was still not contained.

In response to the inferno, which first started burning at approximately 5:45 p.m. yesterday, a state of emergency has been declared. As of 1 a.m., an estimated 400 firefighters were already battling the blaze, with an additional 15 strike teams en route from Los Angeles. Seventy homes and at least 1,000 acres are known to have burned, and estimates keep climbing.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for large swaths of eastern Santa Barbara as well as western Montecito, affecting thousands of residents. According to a spokeswoman for the Montecito Fire District, a quarter of all Montecito’s 10,000 residents have been told to evacuate.

The Tea Fire started burning near the intersection of East Mountain and Coyote roads in Montecito just before 6 p.m. While the blaze was initially small — just three to five acres — strong winds quickly spread the flames. Within four hours, the fire had already burned 1,000 acres.

Large portions of Santa Barbara and Montecito lost power as the fire consumed power lines in the area. As of press time, thousands of residents in the greater Santa Barbara area remained in the dark. While large numbers of residents have been ordered to evacuate, William Boyer, communications director for the County Executive Office, advised anyone close to the fire to leave.

“We are urging people in the area of the fire, if they feel they are in danger to get out,” Boyer said.

A Red Cross evacuation center has been set up at San Marcos High School on Hollister Avenue.

Firefighters remain concerned about the strong wind advisory currently in effect for the weekend. The heavy winds last night, estimated between 20 and 50 mph with gusts upwards of 70 mph, are largely to blame for the fire’s rapid spread.

Westmont College — whose campus is a mere 1,500 feet from the fire’s epicenter — has suffered significant damage from the blaze.

“One dorm is kind of burnt, the math and physics building is burning, the baseball complex and a few others [are burning],” Betsy Schutz, a second-year student at Westmont, said. “I know that the prayer chapel has burned.”

At least four confirmed burn victims have been admitted to the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and two of the victims were air-evacuated to an Irvine burn center for serious burns.

The devastation already caused by the fire is still largely unknown. Reporters in news helicopters above struggled to describe the scope of the urban blaze, and a Daily Nexus photographer saw entire neighborhoods in flames.

–Brianna Tabler contributed to this report.

As Ash Rains, Montecito Burns
By Kristin Ferrell / Staff Writer

With the power out and 100-foot flames in the background, Montecito was otherworldly last night.

The usually buzzing town was eerily dark and quiet as the clear night sky filled with smoke and flames crept along the canyon. With ash raining from the sky, pedestrians — many already wearing masks to protect their lungs from the smoke — gathered on sidewalks and made worried predictions.

Several darkened markets in the area stayed open, with many evacuees stopping to stock up on last minute grocery items before leaving the area. Others sat or paced by their cars — often loaded with suitcases and pets — with cell phones glued to their ears, waiting to meet up with family and friends in order to leave town with everyone accounted for.

While some evacuating residents said they had made plans to stay in hotels a safe distance from the flames, others like Montecito resident Barbara French made their way to the Red Cross evacuation site at San Marcos High School. French said that her family’s decision to evacuate was made quickly and little time was left to do much but pack the essentials.

“The fire was too close, it was coming over the hill at Calvary up on the ridge a mile from our house,” French said. “We brought a few things — my sewing machine, some jewelry, blankets, two changes of clothing and our puppy.”

Like French, local resident Mark Paul deemed it safer to wait the night out from a distance, rather than risk sitting around until it was too late. He said his family decided to go to the shelter after witnessing the destruction near their home.

“You could see a couple houses burning,” Paul said. “We decided to sleep here tonight rather than wait. The kids were getting nervous.”

Meanwhile, at Westmont College, students were relocated to the school’s fire resistant gymnasium while parts of the campus around them burned.

As vague reports of scorched dorms streamed in, Betsy Schutz, a second-year Westmont student, said entertainment was provided to keep students’ minds off the fire blazing outside.

“[Everyone’s] scared because all their stuff is still in the dorms,” Schutz said. “They’re actually playing a movie in the gym for them right now to calm down their nerves, so that’s helping a bit.”

Over at the Santa Barbara Mission, Father Patrick and other residents opened their doors to evacuees.

As he sat under the mission’s picturesque veranda, the skyline behind him filled with the smoke from the fire raging less than a mile away, Patrick reflected on the countless hours he has spent preparing for an emergency event over his year working in St. Mary’s Seminary.

“With all the plans and conversations about what we would do if there was ever a fire, when push comes to shove, you just jump in your car and you go,” he said with a tired laugh.