Officials Blame Santa Barbara Wildfire on Bonfire

By: Shayetayafe Mojajer AP
By: Shayetayafe Mojajer AP

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A bonfire built by a group of young adults sparked the massive wildfire in Santa Barbara that destroyed multimillion dollar mansions and injured dozens, authorities said Tuesday.

An anonymous tip led to the discovery that 10 college students had gathered for a late night hangout at an abandoned property where the fire originated, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. He declined to say which college the students attended.

"It appears this fire was the result of carelessness, not criminal intent," said Brown.

No criminal charges have yet been made in the blaze, which consumed nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed 210 homes.

The group left sometime between 3 to 5 a.m., and 13 to 14 hours later the smoldering embers of that bonfire sparked the wildfire, Brown said. The group had been hanging out at a property known locally as the "tea garden" next to an abandoned tea house in the hills of Montecito.

"They thought the fire was extinguished, but we don't have a lot of detail to disclose about what they did to do so," Brown said.

The fire was the first of three blazes to erupt in Southern California in the last week which have collectively damaged or destroyed about 1,000 homes. The Santa Barbara blaze burned nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed 210 homes.

More than two dozen people were injured in that blaze, including a Montecito couple who remained in critical condition Tuesday at the University of California, Irvine, Medical Center. Lance and Carla Hoffman, both 29, were severely burned on Nov. 13 while fleeing their home, which burned to the ground.

In Southern California, the Santa Ana winds that swept six counties like a blowtorch died down Tuesday, allowing crews to mop up the smoldering hotspots.

In Los Angeles County, an 11,213-acre fire in the San Fernando Valley was 70 percent contained and the last remaining evacuation order was lifted in Orange County, where a nearly 29,000-acre complex of fires was 75 percent contained and some of the 3,760 firefighters were being released.

Officials for a second day allowed residents to return to the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar in northern Los Angeles for a few minutes to salvage what they could from acres of ashes. The fire burned about 480 homes and left 125 standing.

Los Angeles county said it was sending crisis counseling teams to comfort the victims.

Meanwhile, lawmakers geared up to help those who lost their homes. President George W. Bush made a disaster declaration for California, freeing up federal aid to areas ravaged by the wildfires that blacked more than 65 square miles.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order waiving state fees for fire victims who need to replace destroyed birth certificates and other documents or obtain state property inspections. The order also waived a one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance applicants who lost their jobs because of the fire.

Los Angeles County Assessor Rick Auerbach said his office had begun identifying damaged or destroyed homes in order to reassess
their value and provide their owners with property tax relief.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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