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Santa Barbara Burning

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We were walking down Hendry's Beach, my three-year-old son and my dog and I, just after six p.m. on Thursday night, waiting for the moon to rise over the bluffs and light our way. But something looked weird over the ocean. A thick cloud of some kind. Smoke from a wildfire. When the moon finally appeared, it was blood red and angry and half-hidden by the massive plume. Everything was becoming terrible.

It had been a good week in Santa Barbara. We had rented the little beach house again, during the relatively cheap post-summer/pre-holiday lull, and spent the days hiking in the Douglas Family Preserve overlooking the blue Pacific and the Channel Islands -- thanks, Kirk & Mike! -- and wandering the seashore and doing the various free things that make Santa Barbara a rare final outpost of civilization, such as going to a Beethoven concert in the library on a weekday morning.

Out in the Mojave where I live, two-and-a-half hours from the elegant coast, all the houses look like dull crap or vulgar insults. But I'm thinking of building a place out here, among the Joshua Trees, and there is no better open air museum of Early California architecture than Santa Barbara. Thanks to the building codes and the general aesthetics of the place, even a Ralphs grocery store can look like a Moorish castle, and the grandest estates are simple adobe family houses around a courtyard of outdoor tables and citrus trees.

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A lot of those fine old Spanish Colonial Revival places are in the hills of Montecito and the Santa Barbara foothills tumbling down from the mountains of Los Padres National Forest. And that's where the wildfire struck last night, not long after sundown.

Just as my son and dog and I got back to the house, the power went out. It would flash on and off for the next hours, as hot white ash rained from the sky and I cranked my little Red Cross emergency radio to hear the live coverage by KTYD-FM. Santa Ana gusts blew open the doors and windows. You couldn't go outside without a wet towel clutched over your nose and mouth. When the teevee did work, the scenes were devastating. The fire was headed to the ocean. We packed up and left our house a day early.

The radio warned against taking surface streets. All the stoplights were out, and drivers were so bewitched by the flames dancing on the mountains that they were crashing, everywhere. I took the 101 from Las Positas and drove through a hellscape.

In the foothills, dozens of "hot spots" could be seen, with five or six huge estates bursting into flames and a fire line that dropped behind ridges and over hills and went in either direction for as far as you could see. Convoys of fire engines roared up the highway, from Ventura and Los Angeles and Orange County. The radio hosts somberly recounted the tragedies seen and offers of help received.

Mansions and compounds literally exploded as we creeped south on the 101. The Santa Barbara radio stations faded out. I switched to the L.A. news stations, 1070 and 980, both of which were inexplicably reporting that the estates owned by Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe were safe. Idiots.

To see photos from the fire, click here.