Powerful winds during a night in which "all hell broke loose" have pushed a raging wildfire to the doorstep of this wealthy coastal city, threatening to destroy dozens more homes and leading to the evacuation of more than 20,000 people.
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Powerful winds during a night in which "all hell broke loose" have pushed a raging wildfire to the doorstep of this wealthy coastal city, threatening to destroy dozens more homes and leading to the evacuation of more than 20,000 people.
Firefighters were putting out roof fires Friday as gusts drove the flames down from the steep canyons above Santa Barbara and started burning homes in the residential flatlands.
Once tame, the fire front now stretches for five miles, city Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said. "Literally last night, all hell broke loose," he said.
Ash rained down on empty neighborhoods of multimillion-dollar mansions and mobile home parks that were bathed in the approaching fire's eerie orange glow, as huge clouds of smoke billowed over the blackened mountains.
Tinder dry weather, scorching temperatures and wind gusts of up to 65 mph were forecast for Friday. The 3,500-acre fire was 10 percent contained, DiMizio said.
About 2,500 firefighters are battling the fire, which began Tuesday and was quickly turned into a blowtorch by gusting winds. It has razed or damaged 75 homes so far.
More than 20,000 people had been ordered to leave their homes, and another 16,000 were in threatened areas and warned to be ready to evacuate at a moment's notice, said Battalion Chief Mike Carr of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Authorities said more than 800 people were in evacuation shelters.
"Right now, if you're not evacuated in the Santa Barbara area, you are sheltering evacuees," DiMizio said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Fire spokesman Gary Pitney said flames jumped Foothill Road dividing the hilly terrain from the flatlands below and ignited spot fires in brush surrounding houses. The fire also pushed west across state Route 154, the key thoroughfare between Santa Barbara and wine country to the north, he said.
Kelley Gouette, a deputy incident commander with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he requested that officials bring in a DC-10 to drop larger loads of water on the blaze.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said the blaze was particularly tough to fight as it spread into rugged terrain with thick brush that served as fuel and limited firefighting aircraft.
Firefighters are "running pretty thin on equipment," he said.
Officials said 11 firefighters were injured, including three who were injured when they sheltered in a house during a firestorm. They were reported in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center but two will need skin grafts and surgery. Other injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to sprained ankles.
About 2,300 firefighters from many departments were on the lines, aided by aircraft. The fire was just 10 percent contained.
The seasonal wildfires that menace Santa Barbara — home to screen stars, former presidents and Oprah Winfrey — roared to life earlier in the year than usual but their ferocity is familiar.
Firefighters have been wary of "sundowners" — fierce winds that late in the day can sweep down from the Santa Ynez Mountains towering close behind this coastal city.
The fire was just a slumbering day-old brush blaze on rugged slopes above the city when a sundowner hit at midafternoon Wednesday, hurling towering flames into homes and spitting embers into more distant neighborhoods.
The city's location on the state's central coast gives it views of the Pacific Ocean and some of the best weather in the world, with temperatures routinely topping out in the 70s. Now with a population of about 90,000, it dates to the Spanish colonial era of California and a Roman Catholic mission established in the 1780s is a major tourist attraction.
But the geography that gives it beauty and a serene atmosphere also brings danger.
In November, a wind-driven fire burned 200 houses in Santa Barbara and Montecito, including the home of actor Christopher Lloyd. Winfrey's estate escaped, along with the home of actor Rob Lowe, among many celebrities who have area homes.
Gregg Patronyk, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident whose parents' home was destroyed by fire in 1990 and who had to evacuate in November, said he began soaking his roof when he saw other houses burning Wednesday.
"It started firestorming dramatically," he said. "The fire got within 200 to 300 feet of my house. There was a lot of pressure to leave. Police wanted me out and I got a frantic call from my sister, who was walking up the hill to get me. So I packed up the car and left, picking her up on the way."
Elsewhere, a wildfire in the mountains near Timberon in southern New Mexico that destroyed three homes and charred an estimated 140 acres is now 40 percent contained. State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said no other structures are threatened but 20 homes remain under an evacuation order.