Wind, heat whipping up wildfires across the dry West


GOLETA, Calif. (AP) — A fleet of aircraft dropped water and retardant to combat a wind-driven wildfire burning out of control Thursday in rugged coastal canyons west of Santa Barbara, where hundreds of campers, some rural homes and an oil processing facility evacuated as the flames crept toward the ocean.

Strong gusts and rising temperatures across the dry Western U.S. also worsened wildfires in other states. A blaze in central New Mexico exploded to nearly 19 square miles and forced residents of some small communities to flee after sending up a towering plume of smoke that blanketed the state’s largest city in a thick haze. Some structures have burned, but it’s not clear whether they were homes.

In eastern Arizona, a small community was evacuated and thousands of other residents were told to prepare to leave after a wind-whipped wildfire charred more than 12 square miles. Blazes also threatened homes in Utah, where a firefighter hurt his head in a fall.

The weather was expected to pose problems for crews in those states and California, where flames that ignited Wednesday afternoon chewed through nearly 2 square miles of dry brush in an area that has not burned in some 70 years.

Winds gusting to nearly 40 mph pushed the fire through canyons and close to a few ranch homes and an ExxonMobil crude oil processing facility that employs about 250 workers. No structures were damaged, and no injuries were reported.

ExxonMobil evacuated non-essential employees from the Las Flores Canyon site, and those that remained through the night helped protect it against the flames, company spokesman Todd Spitler said.

By morning, the fire posed little risk to the facility with a cleared buffer zone, Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said.

“It’s in good shape now,” he said. “There was a lot of fire around it during the night, but the structure protection was effective.”

Famous properties in the area include Rancho del Cielo, which served as President Ronald Reagan’s Western White House. The fire was about a mile from the ranch and moving away from it at midday, officials said.

Sheriff Bill Brown said his department has made 395 calls to residents so far ordering mandatory evacuations and an additional 33 have been issued warnings. It was not clear if those calls were made to individual homes.

Crews working in steep terrain took advantage of calmer winds Thursday to build lines around the blaze, Zaniboni said. The air attack included several helicopters and up to eight air tankers.

But officials warned that calm conditions would not last, with gusty winds in the forecast.

Hundreds of people were forced from campgrounds in Los Padres National Forest as the fire raced through dry brush along hillsides. Also closed was Refugio State Beach, which was off-limits for months last year following a major oil spill.

Some campers decided to leave before campgrounds were evacuated.

“It’s completely smoked out up there, so we decided to take the kids and get out of there,” Ted Bayard told Santa Barbara station KEYT-TV from his driver’s seat as his family left popular El Capitan State Beach.

About 30 campers had to be taken to a Red Cross center in a jail bus, the sheriff said.

More than 80 horses were evacuated from ranches and taken to a shelter that was set up at the county fairgrounds. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

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Weber and Associated Press writer John Antczak reported from Los Angeles.

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This story has been corrected to show that the ExxonMobil site is not a refinery, but a crude oil processing facility. It removes a reference to the 101, which is a U.S. highway, not a state route.