SANTA BARBARA, CALIF., JUNE 28 -- Residents of this popular resort and university town, the most drought-stricken community in California, fought today against a major fire fueled by a southwestern dry season considered the most dangerous in years.
As daylight ended on a fire line looping around bone-dry hills and valleys, officials said the raging, many-fingered blaze had destroyed more than 500 houses and other buildings over 4,000 acres since Wednesday afternoon but the treacherous twilight "sundowner" winds had subsided, creating hopes among firefighters that the fire could be brought under control. Fourteen injuries were reported, and three people were hospitalized, including the pilot of a firefighting helicopter whose leg was broken when the helicopter crashed this afternoon.
Elsewhere in the West, blazes in Utah and Montana were controlled, but fires burned in Arizona, Colorado and Texas. A cabin built in the 1920s by novelist Zane Grey was destroyed by a lightning-sparked fire in Arizona's Tonto National Forest.
Residents of homes ranging in value from $300,000 to $1 million in Santa Barbara and neighboring Goleta told of fighting the blaze with garden hoses until midnight Wednesday as flames leaped between fir and oak trees, sparing some houses and gutting others. "We were just not going to give up," said Mark Ligman, a fashion model who with his father and brother fought off flames along ravaged El Sueno Road.
Authorities begged for fewer showers and less watering by residents already irritated by the state's most severe drought restrictions, which have led some to paint their dried lawns green. Local government officials' refusal to develop more water sources over the last decade for fear of encouraging population growth drew considerable ire. "They knew we faced drought conditions, and they didn't do jack about it," said Jamie Perez, an opera singer, as she trickled water from a garden hose on the smoldering ashes of her neighbor's demolished house.
California Gov. George Deukmejian (R), after touring affected neighborhoods, declared Santa Barbara County a state disaster area and said he had never seen such residential damage. "It is really astounding that there were not many people who were killed or seriously injured," Deukmejian said.
The dry conditions appeared to be particularly tempting to arsonists. Glendale, Calif., officials investigating a hillside fire that destroyed 40 houses and damaged 15 others said they found a butane lighter wedged open by a pen that witnesses said may have been tossed into dry brush by two youths driving by. Officials arrested a drifter on suspicion of starting the Carbon Canyon fire along the border of Orange and San Bernardino counties while trying to cook a meal.
A fire that destroyed 15 homes in Riverside County began with a controlled burn by the U.S. Forest Service that went awry. Santa Barbara officials who originally suggested arson said this afternoon they were only investigating the possibility.
At the request of California officials, the Defense Department has dispatched four C-130 transport planes equipped with airborne firefighting systems to a naval air station near Santa Barbara to assist in the efforts. The special equipment, provided by the U.S. Forest Service, will be used to drop fire-suppressing chemicals on the flames, according to Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams.
Arnold Hartigan, spokesman for the Boise Interagency Fire Center, said 90 percent of damaging fires in the Los Angeles area are man-made, while lightning is the principal cause of blazes in the thinly populated areas between the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains. He said electric storms were forecast in parts of Colorado, Arizona and California susceptible to fire. By this afternoon the center was tracking 14 major fires throughout the West covering about 40,000 acres.
The Santa Barbara fire, which began in the remote Painted Cave area north of the city, is at least 12 miles east of the mountain ranch former president Ronald Reagan used as a Western White House but near a Painted Cave house owned by actress Jane Fonda. County fire marshal Michael Bennett said Painted Cave residents were being evacuated this afternoon as winds picked up in that area, but forecasters said they were uncertain if gusts would blow the fire back toward town as happened Wednesday night.
Bennett said the fire moved so quickly most residents ran rather than trying to fight the flames. A Santa Barbara secretary who declined to be identified said that when she and her two daughters emerged from having supper at McDonald's Wednesday night, they saw their entire neighborhood apparently covered with flames. They spent the night with a friend but returned this morning to find the fire had leaped over their duplex, leaving burn marks three feet from its back door.
J.R. Ligman and his sons said they fought for four hours one wall of flames that destroyed the hot tub on the hill behind them and then another that torched a neighbor's house as they poured water into the burning structure's skylights.
At one point, Ligman's son Mark said, the smoke was so thick they had to grope their way to the street by following the line of their hedge.
Ligman, an electronics designer who built the four-bedroom wooden house himself, today pointed at brightly colored cockatiels flying overhead, among the 30 prized birds he freed. Fire officials combed the neighborhood, recommending residents spend tonight elsewhere in case the winds shift, but Ligman said, "I'm not going anywhere."
Staff writer Molly Moore in Washington contributed to this report.