The expansive fire that cut through Montecito and Santa Barbara this weekend has died down, but over 200 homes have been destroyed.
The Tea Fire, which started at approximately 5:50 p.m. Thursday in the hills above Montecito, was 75 percent contained as of yesterday, thanks in large part to calm winds and favorable conditions on Friday and Saturday. The blaze, propagated by strong “sundowner” winds Thursday, has burned 1,940 acres thus far and is responsible for the destruction of 210 homes.
While the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. has been slowly allowing residents to return to their homes, large areas of Santa Barbara and Montecito remain under mandatory evacuation orders. However, there are no structures that are currently under imminent threat of destruction, according to the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the devastation caused by the Tea Fire on Saturday, after declaring a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County on Friday.
“It looked like hell today,” Schwarzenegger said at a press conference. “And I tell you, I feel horrible for the people that have been affected by that, whose homes burned down and losing all their personal belongings and now having to rebuild their homes. I mean, there is tremendous loss there.”
An estimated 15,000 residents, or some 5,300 homes, were told to evacuate Thursday. The American Red Cross quickly established a shelter at San Marcos High School off Hollister Avenue for evacuees. Approximately 200 individuals slept at the shelter the first night, though the number of evacuees remaining on Sunday had shrunk to around 15.
A majority of the homes destroyed — 130 out of the total 210 lost — were within Santa Barbara City limits. A complete list of damaged properties can be found at the county Web site, www.countyofsb.org.
In addition to the hundreds of homes lost, several buildings at Westmont College, the small liberal arts college located less than a quarter mile from where the fire started, were destroyed. Because of the rapid speed of the fire, hundreds of students were forced to take refuge for the night in the school’s fireproof gym.
At the Tea Fire’s height Friday, 2,235 firefighters were battling the blaze in Montecito. That number had to be scaled back, however, after another catastrophic fire erupted Friday night in the Sylmar area of the San Fernando Valley.
Much like the Tea Fire 24 hours prior, the Sayre Fire started small but was spread rapidly by strong Santa Ana winds, with gusts upward of 70 mph. By daybreak Saturday, the fire had already burned 2,600 acres. As of yesterday, the blaze has burned 541 homes and 10,077 acres, is 40 percent contains. and is already considered one of the worst fires to hit Los Angeles County in decades.
Additionally, a third wind-driven fire ignited Saturday in Corona, a city on the boundary between Orange and Riverside counties. The blaze, dubbed the Triangle Complex, has already burned 23,722 acres and 64 buildings, or 104 residences, and is 19 percent contained, according to CAL FIRE.
With the exception of a 98-year old Santa Barbara man who died while being evacuated Friday, there has been no loss of life reported. Officials have, however, been scouring for possible victims in a mobile home park in Sylmar that was ravaged by flames Friday night.
The cause behind the Tea Fire remains unknown but is currently under investigation. The inferno was so-named because it is believed to have started in a small park known as the Tea Garden.
The to-date cost of fighting the Tea Fire is currently at $3.9 million. Thanks to Schwarzenegger’s decision to declare a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County, much of the tab will be covered by the state.
In a campuswide e-mail message, UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang put the Tea Fire in perspective and vowed support to those affected.
“The unfolding of the Tea Fire in Montecito and Santa Barbara is a tragedy of major proportions…” Yang wrote. “The destruction of property and the dislocation of so many of our colleagues, friends, and neighbors is cause for enormous concern. The UC Santa Barbara community is united in its support for those who are suffering personal loss as a result of this fire.”