SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Fierce winds blew a wildfire into Southern California homes Wednesday, forcing thousands of people to flee as columns of smoke rose from a scenic coastal enclave.
TV news helicopters showed many homes ablaze in Santa Barbara, but the number could not immediately be determined because of thick smoke columns that scattered embers over the city and streamed out over the Pacific Ocean.
Huge mansions and humble homes alike were reduced to rubble, leaving palm trees swaying over gutted ruins.
The fire had burned 200 acres, or about one-third of a square mile, by midday when winds were calm, then was whipped by up to 50 mph gusts. By sunset, it was 500 acres — about three-fourths of a square mile — and winds were down to 25 mph, said Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki.
Authorities could not immediately estimate the number of lost structures but aerial footage showed five or more luxury homes burning along a crest-top road. Many flare-ups dotting the residential hills were apparently burning homes.
More than 8,000 people were evacuated, according to a proclamation Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued in declaring a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County. He asked federal authorities to issue an assistance grant to ensure financial resources are available for firefighting.
Three Ventura County firefighters received minor to moderate burns and respiratory injuries when their fire engine was overtaken by flames as they tried to protect a structure, Ventura County Fire department spokesman Bill Nash said. Their fire engine was heavily damaged in the incident and an accident review team was en route to the scene to determine what had happened.
The three were taken by helicopter to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles.
Mayor Marty Blum said other firefighters remained perilously close to the flames.
"We have got a couple firefighters in a real tentative situation up there surrounded by some flames, so we are hoping to get them out of there," Blum told KABC-TV.
One firefighter suffered a head injury earlier in the day.
More than 800 firefighters were on the lines, and 20 more strike teams totaling about 1,300 firefighters were requested.
"The firefighters are picking houses and seeing if they can make a stand," Sadecki said.
Authorities ordered 2,000 homes evacuated Wednesday afternoon, up from an earlier evacuation order of 1,200.
The blaze bore down on the city at frightening speed, said Chad Jenson, a food server at Giovanni's Pizza.
"The sky is just deep orange and black, pretty much our whole hillside is going down," Jenson said.
In a city that has experienced a number of wildfires, Jenson said this one was as close to the city center as any he had seen. Less than six months ago a fire destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito, and in 1990, a blaze killed one person and destroyed 641 homes, apartments and other structures in the county.
Steve Pivato, a Goleta resident, said the homes in the threatened area cost at least $1 million. "There's no shacks in that area," he said.
Pivato said the smoke from the fire turned from gray to black as he drove home: "That's the color when homes starts burning."
Jason Coggins, a waiter at the Kyoto Japanese Restaurant in Santa Barbara, said several traffic lights went out, causing multiple fender benders and traffic problems, and that the air was thick with ash.
"It's raining ash all the way down to the beach," Coggins said.
Santa Barbara, which has about 90,000 residents, rises rapidly from the Pacific coastline on the south to the foothills of the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains to the north. It is sometimes subject to "sundowners" — strong winds that blow downslope through passes and canyons of the mountain range and offshore. The tourist destination is about 100 miles west of Los Angeles.
Elsewhere, firefighters were battling a blaze in rural southeastern Arizona that destroyed three houses near Sierra Vista on Tuesday and injured a man. The fire charred about 4,200 acres near Fort Huachuca, threatening about 50 homes in a subdivision. Containment was estimated at 15 percent Wednesday.
In southern New Mexico, a wildfire in the mountains near Timberon charred about 100 acres, burning at least three structures. State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said firefighters hadn't been able to confirm what types of buildings they were.
Fifteen residents have been evacuated, and 70 structures were threatened, Ware said.