November 14, 2008 / 9:00 AM / 9 years ago

Wildfire rages in California celebrity enclave

MONTECITO, California (Reuters) - A wind-driven brush fire in Southern California roared through exclusive estates in the celebrity seaside enclave of Montecito, injuring 13 people and gutting well over 100 homes, authorities said on Friday.

<p>A ruptured gas line burns in front of a large estate as firefighters work to contain a wildfire which has destroyed over 100 homes in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara County, California, November 14, 2008. REUTERS/Phil McCarten</p>

In the area dubbed “America’s Riviera,” those reported to have lost their homes included actor Christopher Lloyd, best known as the zany scientist in the “Back to the Future” movies. But talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and actor Rob Lowe said they had been spared for the time being.

The fire erupted on Thursday evening and charred at least 2,000 acres overnight, blazing through entire blocks of mansions in the community 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s governor, declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County, putting additional state resources at the disposal of local fire departments.

Firefighters were largely powerless to stop the destruction overnight as gusts howling at 70 mph fanned the flames in the foothills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“Mother Nature basically took over,” Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace told a news conference.

Winds died down after sunrise but were expected to kick up again later on Friday, leaving some 650 firefighters a brief opportunity to gain some ground.

“We’re going to have a tough day ahead. Control of this fire is not even in sight,” said Don Prince, fire chief of the neighboring city of Santa Barbara. “We’re not out of the woods by any stretch.”

‘IT WAS TOO LATE’

Lowe, who stars on the drama “Brothers & Sisters,” said he and his son fled their home after his wife called them to warn: “Monticeto’s on fire. Get out!”

“We got in the car and pulled out of the driveway and the entire mountain behind us was (in) flames 200 feet high, shooting into the air,” Lowe told Winfrey in a telephone interview. “It was like Armageddon.”

Winfrey opened her Chicago-based show by saying: “The first thing I wanted to talk about is the raging fire burning right now in my neighborhood of Montecito ... This fire is about 2 miles from my house.”

Many others were not as lucky as Lowe and Winfrey.

Rosie Neeley, 31, fled with her parents before their house was consumed by fire overnight.

“When we saw the flames coming down the canyon, we knew it was too late,” she said, standing near the smoldering ruins.

Prince said “well over 100 homes” had been lost in the blaze since Thursday night but that many had been saved thanks to “some super-heroic efforts” on the part of firefighters.

About 2,500 people have been evacuated and 20,000 people in the wider area were without power, officials said. With reservoirs running low from lack of rainfall, authorities declared a water emergency in Montecito.

Southern California is on high wildfire alert this weekend due to unseasonably hot weather, drought conditions and forecasts of high winds. A year ago, 30 wildfires burned during one week in Southern California, destroying some 2,000 homes and forcing a record 500,000 residents to evacuate.

Among the 13 people reported injured, 10 suffered from smoke inhalation and three from burns, the county’s emergency operations center said in a statement.

According to Prince, two of the burn injuries were serious. County Fire Chief John Scherrei said he had heard of five more burn victims but had no details.

Officials said 1,000 students at Westmont College, a private Christian university that suffered substantial damage in the blaze, were out of harm’s way after taking shelter in a fireproof gymnasium.

By early Friday, the relentless fire had spread to the fringes of neighboring Santa Barbara city.

Other famous residents include mobile phone pioneer Craig McCaw and Google Inc chief executive Eric Schmidt, who reportedly paid about $20 million for comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ compound earlier this year. It was not known if any of these homes were affected by the fire.

Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman, Dean Goodman and Mary Milliken; Editing by John O'Callaghan

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