Thousands of Southern California homes are in danger from a rapidly advancing windswept brush fire that has prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in S. Barbara County. Among the 8,000 people forced to evacuate are dozens of Jewish families who, like their neighbors, left with what little they could carry and headed to hotels and shelters far from the fire zone.

Seth Olitzky took his wife and young son to the home of Rabbi Yosef and Devorah Loschak, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of S. Barbara. The story of their flight is among the more painful of evacuees’, given that their home was destroyed in the Montecito-Tea Fire that torched almost 2,000 acres last November. Then, as now, the Loschaks welcomed the family with open arms.

“They’ve been very generous,” said Olitzky, a teacher and software engineer reached after taking his dog to a kennel. “We’ve been better, but I’m much more concerned about the people still living in the hills.”

After last year’s fire, the Olitzkys found a rental to stay in while they rebuilt their charred home. On Wednesday, gale-force winds turned the latest fire into an inferno, and led authorities to issue blanket evacuation orders in S. Barbara’s mountain communities.

Unlike the last fire, though, the Olitzkys had a little bit of time to pack. Back then, Olitzky’s wife and son had to flee in the middle of the night while he was teaching a class. This week, their neighborhood was declared a warning area prior to being evacuated.

“We, at least, were prepared for a day,” said Olitzky. “We lost everything in the last fire, so we didn’t have that much.”

Assessing Need

Yosef Loschak said that he and his wife spent most of Wednesday checking in with congregants and friends, and assessing their immediate needs. While they nearly evacuated last November, the current fire remained in excess of five miles away Thursday morning.

“There’s more than a thousand firefighters here,” said the rabbi, who has lived in S. Barbara for more than 30 years and has seen his share of wildfires. “This is quite serious, anything can happen. In the last fire, we packed up our Torah scrolls and my wife left, and if we see the fire getting closer, we’ll do the same this time.”

Of primary importance, he said, was ensuring the safety of residents.

“We strive to always be there for people,” said Loschak. “Obviously, we would prefer the good times, but it’s comforting for people to know that we are here in their times of need.”

State and local emergency management officials described the fire, fueled by bone-dry brush and winds of up to 50 mph, as out of control.

“We are in a state of extreme emergency,” David Sadecki, a spokesman for the S. Barbara County Fire Department, told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re running very, very thin.”

At the University of California, S. Barbara, Loschak’s son, Rabbi Mendel Loschak, said that students were apprehensive. During the day, they can see smoke rolling off the mountains and at night, they can see the flames, he said.

“At times, the whole sky fills with smoke,” said the younger Loschak, who directs the campus-based Chabad House at the university. “But no one’s talking about evacuating yet.”