California Fire Disaster: Fierce Winds Rage On

Over 13,500 people have been evacuated; 10 firefighters reportedly injured.

ByABC News
May 7, 2009, 7:25 AM

May 7, 2009— -- A fierce wildfire raged through the hills near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Thursday, forcing thousands of residents to flee.

Propelled by 50-mile-per-hour winds,at least 75 homes vanished in flames. The fires have scorched at least 2,700 acres of the American Riviera.

"There were these walls of what looked like 300-foot-high flames right in front of the house," one resident told ABC News. "The embers were... right in front of our front window. ...You could feel the heat."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County on Wednesday, estimated that dozens of homes had been destroyed -- but no real figure exists because the thick smoke and intense blaze have prevented an accurate tally.

More than 13,500 people have been evacuated so far, many of them notified through the area's reverse 911 notification system, according to ABC affiliate KABC.

The fires were fed by so-called "sundowner winds," which carried twice the usual amount of pressure over the mountains and pushed flames into the populated canyons at gusts of 65 mph.

"The effect is like putting a bellows into the fire," incident meteorologist Robert Balfour told ABC News. "It's just pumping oxygen into it, causing the fire to increase and move rapidly."

As the heat builds in the valleys, the late afternoon winds dry the surrounding hills. Combined with unseasonably hot temperatures, the weather has created a perfect storm for a raging wildfire.

Nearly 1,400 firefighters are trying to rein in the flames, which show no sign of relenting. Firefighters worked tirelessly, saving hundreds of homes from devastation.

"We really can't do any containment lines. It's too dangerous," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said, according to The Associated Press. "We're doing some structure protection, but firefighters can be in a safe location one minute and in a dangerous situation the next."

At least 10 firefighters have been injured, according to The AP, including three Ventura County firefighters whose engine was overtaken by flames as they tried to protect a structure.