SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - A wildfire raging along mountain slopes expanded along a five-mile front above normally serene coastal communities Friday, burning more homes and raising the number of evacuees to more than 30,000.
Authorities urged another 23,000 people to remain ready to leave at a moment's notice despite the possibility of improving weather conditions and the arrival of a huge firefighting jet.
"There will be a point in the incident when I will have cautious optimism but I'm not there yet," said Joe Waterman, the overall fire commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Columns of smoke boiled off the Santa Ynez Mountains after a fierce overnight battle as the 4-day-old, 8,600-acre blaze repeated its pattern of relative calm in daylight and explosive behavior when winds arrive in the evenings.
"Literally last night, all hell broke loose," Santa Barbara city Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said Friday morning, recounting firefighters' efforts to put out roof fires and keep flames out of the city proper.
About 80 homes were destroyed — most of them Wednesday night — in neighborhoods on ridges and in canyons that rise up the foothills above the north edge of Santa Barbara.
The city and adjacent communities, pinched between the coast on the south and the rugged mountains on the north, are subject to fierce local winds known as "sundowners" that sweep down the slopes from north to south and out to sea.
The fire's activity forced expansion of mandatory evacuation areas and evacuation warning areas as the blaze pushed west toward neighboring Goleta and east into a small portion of tony Montecito. Cities and unincorporated county territories form a continuous narrow population strip along the Pacific.
"It's crazy, the whole mountain looked like an inferno," said Maria Martinez, 50, who hurriedly left with her fiance from their home late Thursday. The couple ended up at an evacuation center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The eight-member Wasjutin family also arrived at the campus in three cars and a trailer packed with four dogs, eight baby chickens, two cockatiels, an iguana, a rat named Cutie and an African spur tortoise. They fled their 40-acre San Marcos Pass property Thursday night after watching flames grow closer, leaving three horses and three hens behind.
"We drove down through fire on both sides," said Silvia Wasjutin, 48, a speech pathologist.
In strange contrasts, students bicycled to classes and midterms on beach cruiser bicycles as ash fell on campus, and boats bobbed quietly in Santa Barbara's harbor as smoke rose into the air from the mountains above town.
During the firestorm, Walter Claudio, 48, went to check on a new house he's building near his current home.
"It was blowing everywhere. I'm going, 'My God, I think we lost everything,'" Claudio said Friday over the drone of a helicopter taking on water from a reservoir. He said he returned to his current home until the fire threatened him there.
"Embers were flying 50 feet in the air, in the trees," he said. "I said, 'I've got to get out of here.'"
He returned Friday to find both homes intact amid the charred landscape.
"It's so unpredictable. It seems like it's calm, and then," he said, trailing off before snapping his fingers. "You really have to be on top of it."
Fire authorities said that as of Friday an estimated 12,204 properties were under mandatory evacuation orders, affecting 30,500 people, and nearly 9,200 properties were under warning for potential evacuation, affecting 23,000 people. Fire officials raised the fire's size estimate to 8,600 acres from 3,500, based on more accurate surveying from aircraft during daytime flights. The smaller estimate came from firefighters at night on the ground, said fire spokesman Dennis Mathisen.
More than 2,300 firefighters were on the scene along with 246 engines, 14 air tankers and 15 helicopters. A DC-10 jumbo jet tanker capable of dumping huge loads of retardant began making runs on the fire Friday afternoon.
Containment was estimated at 10 percent. The cause of the blaze, which broke out Tuesday, remained under investigation.
The sharp north-to-south pressure gradient creating the winds was expected to weaken but remain strong enough to produce gusts through Saturday, and possibly until Sunday morning, the National Weather Service said.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin told a late afternoon press conference that sundowners had been predicted to return by then, but instead breezes were blowing in off the Pacific.
"When the air is coming off of the ocean the humidity is fairly high and it pushes the fire back away from the community," he said. "But the (sundowner) prediction is still there. The winds could surface, change back around and blow the fire back downhill."
Franklin said that on Saturday "there's supposed to be a significant change in that weather pattern, so we're all keeping our fingers crossed."
Authorities said more than 800 people were in evacuation shelters. Hotels were offering deals to evacuees.
"Right now, if you're not evacuated in the Santa Barbara area, you are sheltering evacuees," DiMizio said.
Oscar Funez, 39, his wife, Patricia, 42, and their son, Augustin, 4, were watching the fire on television about 10 p.m. Thursday night when they noticed other tenants leaving their Santa Barbara apartment building. They packed a suitcase and fled, too.
"It's our fourth fire in Santa Barbara. We know we have to have everything — paperwork, clothes, everything — ready to go," Oscar Funez said.
The family spent the night on cots at UCSB and, as they prepared to drive to stay with relatives in Los Angeles, their son clutched a stuffed elephant toy given to him by a Red Cross worker.
"We must be bad parents, because we didn't bring his stuffed animals," his father said.
At historic Santa Barbara Mission, the Rev. Tom Messner was one of three friars permitted to remain during the evacuation.
Messner said there was plenty of smoke, but that he did not feel in danger.
"I can't see the flames and we have fire trucks in front of the place, so we feel very safe," said Messner, who has spent his days answering phones and helping to make sandwiches for firefighters since the site was closed on Wednesday.
The mission was established by Spanish Franciscan missionaries in 1786. The present church, a major tourist attraction, was built in 1820, eight years after an earthquake destroyed the previous structure.
Officials said 11 firefighters had been injured to date, including three who were burned in a firestorm Wednesday.
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.