IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Sheriff: Bonfire caused 1 of 3 Calif. wildfires

The Santa Barbara County sheriff says a weekend wildfire that destroyed 210 homes was caused accidentally by a bonfire built by a group of young adults.
Standing on what was his front porch, Norman Cowan, 81, stares at the ruins of his home at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, Calif., on Tuesday.Reed Saxon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A bonfire built by a group of young adults caused a weekend wildfire in Santa Barbara that destroyed 210 homes, including multimillion-dollar mansions, and injured more than two dozen people, 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," Brown said.

No criminal charges have been filed, but the county district attorney will review the case, Brown said.

Thousands of acres charred
The fire consumed nearly 2,000 acres in Santa Barbara County and critically injured a couple who were burned as they fled their home, which was destroyed by the flames.

The college group left the smoldering bonfire in the middle of the night and the embers sparked the wildfire 13 to 14 hours later, 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 and blackened more than 65 square miles.

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.

The fire in the San Fernando Valley was 70 percent contained; a third wildfire in Orange County was 75 percent contained.

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

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

Help began to come from the state and federal government. President George W. Bush made a disaster declaration for California, freeing federal aid to areas ravaged by the wildfires.

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

The state has spent $305 million on emergency firefighting since the start of the fiscal year on July 1, $236 million more than lawmakers had planned.

The firefighting expense is adding to the state's $11.2 billion deficit, the governor's finance spokesman said Tuesday.

The state will try to get some of its costs reimbursed from the federal government, which pays for firefighting on federal land, said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

Last year's wildfires were the most expensive in state history, costing California more than $518 million.

More on wildfires | California drought