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.
Winds Send Blaze Out of Control
At least 10 firefighters have been injured, including three Ventura County firefighters who were overtaken by flames as they tried to protect a structure. Two of the firemen suffered severe burns.
"You've got a shift in winds that's going in all different directions at this time," Eric Esquivel, San Bernandino batallion chief, said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Alex and Darby Feldwinn lost their home Thursday.
"We found our piggy bank with a couple cents, so that we can start rebuilding," Darby joked to "GMA" while standing in the rubble of her home.
Kelley Gouette, with the state's Department of Forestry, told The Associated Press the fire is "like a blowtorch."
The fire has been indiscriminate, wiping out luxury homes and threatening trailer parks. One park was ordered to evacuate early Friday after flames jumped U.S. 101, a major road through Santa Barbara.
"GMA's" Sam Champion spent a few minutes on the frontlines with some firefighters.
"When the wind kicks up, it really starts moving," firefighter Cody Bogan told Champion.
"How sure are you that everything is good when you leave, an area?" Champion asked.
"When we leave it, we're comfortable with it, otherwise we won't leave," Bogan explained.
Some people refused to leave after more evacuations were announced Thursday. One worried resident was seen hosing down her house.
"It's coming through this canyon," she said. "Definitely, at some point, [it's] going to be here. … My house is going."
"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."
Raging Wildfire Sends Residents Scrambling
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County Wednesday.
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.
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," said Kathleen Galbraith, a Santa Barbara resident. "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."