The Jesusita Fire, which began in the Santa Barbara foothills Tuesday afternoon, grew significantly more destructive yesterday, spurred on by strong winds and high temperatures.
The Governor declared a state of emergency last night, and approximately 20 homes have allegedly been burned, though reliable statistics on the fire were not available as of press time. While the blaze has thus far remained in the canyons above Santa Barbara, several thousand more structures are potentially at risk, and mandatory evacuations have been issued across large swaths of northern Santa Barbara.
“This fire is moving very fast,” County Emergency Operation Center spokesman Pat Wheatly said. “We are using firefighters to save lives and property. They don’t have the time to judge the extent of the acreage or number of homes burned.”
Although there is no official number, news agencies and firefighters have estimated that between 200 and 500 acres have burned. Three Ventura County firefighters were also injured after being trapped in a burning house and were transported via helicopter to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks.
Wheatly said that the fire was “not at all contained,” and she could not speculate about whether additional neighborhoods would be added to the already extensive list of areas under mandatory evacuation orders. However, she said winds were working against fire containment operations and had not died down since they first picked up early yesterday afternoon.
The fire caused large portions of the downtown area to lose power for much of yesterday afternoon, and further outages are anticipated, according to the county Office of Emergency Services. Isla Vista experienced rolling blackouts during last year’s Tea Fire and could again in the coming days; however, the university has the ability to generate its own auxiliary power.
Little is known about the origins of the fire, though it is believed to have started around the Jesusita trailhead. There were rumors that gun shots were heard there Tuesday, though nothing of the sort has been confirmed.
With several road closures and heavy smoke, traffic was exceedingly congested all over Santa Barbara yesterday. Highway 101 was especially backed up as a result of low visibility from the smoke.
Evacuees from the affected regions are being directed to a Red Cross Disaster Relief Center at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.
Red Cross spokesman Kristiana Kocis said the shelter had moved its operations to Goleta in the afternoon when the winds shifted and the previous venue – the First Presbyterian Church on State Street – was suddenly threatened by the blaze.
Dos Pueblos shelter is prepared to accommodate 200 overnight guests, and the Red Cross has two other facilities prepared to take on any additional evacuees. All told, Kocis said the school can take in up to 2,300 stranded Santa Barbara residents. An estimated 8,000 residents have been told to evacuate, though only a fraction of them are expected to register at a shelter.
As of press time, 80 evacuees had registered at the Dos Pueblos shelter, and Kocis said that the flow of arrivals had been picking up steadily throughout the early evening hours.
Judy Grigsby arrived at the shelter yesterday afternoon after being forced to abandon her home.
“All at once, the smoke became so thick we couldn’t see where the flames were,” Grigsby said. “My husband came and said, ‘We have to get out right now.'”
She said she and her husband had ignored evacuation orders given to them earlier. After nearly five decades in their house on the 1200 block of Tunnel Road, Grigsby said that she had seen many fires in the area before.
“We decided to play it by ear,” she said. “This morning, it looked like the fire had died down – there was just a little plume of smoke left.”
But the winds soon shifted and, by 3 p.m., Grigsby and her husband finally decided to leave.
“We took the cats and a few belongings and had to drive down [out of the neighborhood] through flames on both sides of the street,” she said. “There were leaves caught under my windshield wiper, and those were on fire, too.”