Wildfire near California oil refinery burning out of control

Posted at 8:32 AM, Jun 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-16 11:32:08-04

A California wildfire spurred by strong gusts mushroomed in size and burned out of control Thursday in a remote coastal area west of Santa Barbara, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of campers, some homes and an oil refinery as it crept toward the ocean.

Winds and rising temperatures across the dry Western U.S. also worsened wildfires in other states. A blaze in central New Mexico grew to more than 3 square miles and forced residents to flee at least 50 homes after sending up a towering plume of smoke that blanketed the state's largest city in a thick haze.

In eastern Arizona, a small community was evacuated and residents of five others were told to prepare to leave after a wind-whipped wildfire charred nearly 4 square miles within hours Wednesday. Fires also had threatened homes in Nevada and Utah.

Heat and wind were expected to pose problems for crews in those states and California, where there was no containment of the nearly 2-square-mile blaze drawing closer to an ExxonMobil oil facility in a canyon of heavy brush.

"The refinery has fire around it, and companies in place protecting it," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said, adding that it has a cleared buffer zone.

ExxonMobil has evacuated non-essential employees, and those that remain are helping protect it against the flames, company spokesman Todd Spitler said.

"Our primary concern is for the safety of our employees, contractors and the environment," Spitler said.

Cooler temperatures gave firefighters a break early Thursday, and water-dropping aircraft resumed runs over the flames. 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 on Wednesday night as the fire raced through dry brush along hillsides, Zaniboni said.

Winds gusting to nearly 40 mph pushed the flames through brush-choked canyons, leading officials to order mandatory evacuations in Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon and Las Flores Canyon, which includes the refinery, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said.

Zaniboni said he didn't have a specific number of residences or people affected. Also closed was Refugio State Beach, which was off-limits for months last year following a major oil spill.

Some campers taking advantage of the outdoors 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 50 horses were evacuated from a ranch and taken to a shelter that has been set up at the county fairgrounds. State Route 101 also was closed in both directions near the city of Goleta.