California Fire Disaster: Fierce Winds Rage On

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

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.

"They experienced a sudden firestorm and the heat radiation, which caused a lot of their burn injuries," said Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper.

They were airlifted to a Los Angeles burn center, where two were treated for moderate burns and a third was treated for smoke inhalation, according to center spokesman Roy Forbes.

'The Sky Is Just Deep Orange'

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.

Police have gone door to door telling people to get out immediately. There are now close to 6,000 homes under mandatory evacuation.

"They were doing a great job, and things can change just in the snap of a finger, and ... all of a sudden a situation that looks like it's stabilized becomes extremely dangerous," resident Andy Winchester told "Good Morning America" today.

Residents left their homes dragging suitcases down the street and scrambling to pack as many possessions as they could into their cars.

"You have to drop everything and get up here as fast as you can," said resident John Chavez. "They don't give you much time to get off work and try to fight the traffic and get all your stuff together."

"It's very much the luck of the draw," Winchester said. "You hope your house survives, you hope every house survives, but you know it is a challenge of the conditions and the firefighters are out there doing a great job and, hopefully, it all works out."

Residents told KABC that the brush in the Santa Barbara foothills hasn't burned in more than 40 years.

"We haven't had a fire in this canyon since 1964, so we're due," Kathleen Galbraith, a Santa Barbara resident, said. "We always have everything at the ready to load up all the animals, and we have a sprinkler hooked up to the well to make sure we have it on the house, and then we leave."

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