'All Hell Broke Loose,' Santa Barbara Fire Humbles Firefighters

30,000 residents flee as firefighters battle mother nature.

ByABC News
May 7, 2009, 7:25 AM

May 8, 2009— -- California's fierce wildfire hurdled straight through the Santa Barbara hills Friday, pushed by strong, shifting winds that sent the blaze out of control.

With more than 3,500 acres burned in the four-day-long fire, 30,000 residents have been ordered to flee.

"When the winds come in, we're getting real erratic fire behavior and it's pretty intense," said Andy Ortega, a battalion chief with the Ventura County Fire Department. "Our goal right here is to protect all these structures."

The mandatory evacuation area extends from the mountains to the heart of the city center -- four blocks from State Street downtown. With firefighters facing a line of fire five miles long, the evacuation area expanded overnight, as winds caused the stubborn fire to more than double in size and sent 6,000 more people out of their homes and into the smoke-filled darkness to emergency shelters.

"Last night, all hell broke loose," Santa Barbara Fire Chief Andy Dimizio said today. "We saw the fire spread laterally across the top of the city … to almost five square miles."

Officials said at least 30,000 people now have been evacuated, and another 23,000 in a warning area may be forced to pick up and leave their homes.

"We just jumped in the car and got the dog in the car … and I think, 'God, I hope this isn't the last time I see the house,'" one resident said, noting that she grabbed precious photo albums from the shelves before departing.

Forecasters say the weather is not expected to change significantly for at least two more days, with temperatures remaining hotter than 100 degrees. In neighboring Monticeto, wind gusts measured at hurricane strength today, reaching 65 mph.

The fire has now consumed more than 3,500 acres and damaged or destroyed at least 75 buildings. Homes have been reduced to rubble and automobile wheels turned into puddles of melted metal. The fire remains only 10 percent contained.

"I'm not going to be comfortable until the firefighters are comfortable … and they are not comfortable," said resident Randy Figgins. "The wind will pick up and then what looks like no problem becomes a major problem."

Nearly 2,500 firefighters are trying to rein in the flames, which show no sign of relenting. A DC-10 air tanker joined the fight from the air to save homes from devastation Friday, dispersing 12,000 gallons of fire retardant on the hills.