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Residents flee as flames approach wealthy California enclave

MONTECITO, Calif.  — Residents piled into cars and fled on Saturday, turning downtown Santa Barbara into “a ghost town” as surging winds drove one of the biggest fires in California’s history toward the city and the nearby wealthy enclave of Montecito.

The mandatory evacuations around Montecito and neighboring Summerland came as winds that had eased a day earlier roared back at around 30 mph (48 kph), with gusts to about 60 mph (97 kph). Firefighters stood by yellow fire trucks with hoses unspooled, ready to protect the historic San Ysidro Ranch as heavy smoke rose from the coastal hills, blotting out the blue skies.

A portion of Santa Barbara also was under mandatory evacuation. The city’s zoo was under voluntary evacuation, and workers there began putting some animals into crates and kennels as a precaution.

In downtown Santa Barbara, Maya Schoop-Rutten, owner of Chocolate Maya, said she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear after strong winds blew through.

“It was absolutely incredible,” she said. “There was a huge mushroom of smoke that happened in just a matter of a few minutes.”

Restaurants and small stores on normally bustling State Street were shuttered, as they have been on and off for more than 10 days as the varying winds pushed the flames and smoke back and forth.

“It’s a ghost town. Everything is shut down,” Schoop-Rutten said. “It’s very, very eerie.”

The northbound lanes of U.S. Highway 101, coming up the coast from Los Angeles, were closed for a few hours south of Santa Barbara, with cars stopped on the freeway.

The 404-square-mile (1,046-sq. kilometer) Thomas Fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.

“It is right above the homes,” fire spokesman Jude Olivas said.

Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.

“Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters,” Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.

Pierre Henry, owner of the Bree’osh Bakery in Montecito, said he got a text to evacuate Saturday morning as the fire approached homes. He estimated the fire was about a mile away.

“The worst was the smoke,” Henry said. “You couldn’t breathe at all and it became worse when the wind started. All the ashes and the dust on the street were in the air. It was very, very frightening.”

The city, according to Henry, became devoid of people except for firefighters and as many as 50 firefighter trucks.

“We left everything,” Henry said. “There is nobody in Montecito. Just firefighters.”

The morning passed with no homes damaged or destroyed as firefighters dealt with “extreme and erratic” fire behavior, Olivas said.

Schoop-Rutten said the fire is taking an economic toll, even if it doesn’t invade the city.

“It’s tragic for businesses at this time of the year because this is when we make the money,” she said. “Imagine all the restaurants, all the Christmas parties have been cancelled. People lost a ton of revenue in the past few days.”

There was a spot of good news down the coast. Emergency officials announced that the same fire that was burning about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Montecito was 40 percent contained. Evacuation orders for the city of Ventura were lifted.

As the northerly “sundowner” wind was driving the fire south and west, firefighters were left to hope for them to calm back down.