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Originally published May 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 9, 2009 at 12:14 AM

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"All hell broke loose": 30,000 flee California wildfire

Turning the horizon a lurid orange and raining embers on roofs as it advanced, a wildfire that has destroyed scores of homes in the hills menaced the celebrity enclave of Santa Barbara and other coastal towns Friday, and the number of people ordered to flee climbed to more than 30,000.

The Associated Press

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Turning the horizon a lurid orange and raining embers on roofs as it advanced, a wildfire that has destroyed scores of homes in the hills menaced the celebrity enclave of Santa Barbara and other coastal towns Friday, and the number of people ordered to flee climbed to more than 30,000.

Authorities warned an additional 23,000 to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

Columns of smoke rose off the Santa Ynez Mountains as the 4-day-old Jesusita fire — fanned by "sundowner" winds that sweep down the slopes in the evening — blew up from 2,700 acres to 8,600 in less than a day, creating a firefighting front five miles long.

"It's crazy. The whole mountain looked like an inferno," said Maria Martinez, 50, who with her fiancé fled her home in San Marcos Pass, on the edge of Santa Barbara. The couple went to an evacuation center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Predicted sundowner winds didn't happen late Friday as breezes blew in from the Pacific Ocean, pushing the fire away from homes, said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin. But he warned that the sundowners "could surface, change back around and blow the fire back downhill."

"There will be a point in the incident when I will have cautious optimism but I'm not there yet," said Joe Waterman, the fire commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Fire spokesman Dennis Mathisen said results of new aircraft tracking reported late Friday showed the fire had burned 8,600 acres, up from estimates of 3,500 earlier in the day.

An unknown number of homes were destroyed in the blowup that began late Thursday, in addition to the estimated 80 houses that burned the night before on the ridges and in the canyons above Santa Barbara.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

The number of people ordered to evacuate rose to 30,500 from 12,000 the night before as the blaze pushed west toward neighboring Goleta and east toward well-to-do Montecito.

"Literally last night, all hell broke loose," Santa Barbara Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said Friday, recounting firefighters' efforts to put out roof fires and keep flames out of his section of the city.

The eight-member Wasjutin family arrived at the university 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 after watching the flames grow closer. They left three horses and three hens behind.

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"We drove down through fire on both sides," said Silvia Wasjutin, 48, a speech pathologist.

In a scene of strange contrasts, students bicycled to classes and midterms as ash fell on campus, and boats bobbed in Santa Barbara's harbor as smoke rose from the mountains above town.

The Santa Barbara area has long been a favorite of celebrities. Oprah Winfrey has an estate in Montecito, where Charlie Chaplin's old seaside escape, the Montecito Inn, has stood since 1928. A ranch in the mountains that Ronald and Nancy Reagan bought became his Western retreat during his presidency.

More than 2,300 firefighters battled the blaze, using at least 246 engines, 14 air tankers and 15 helicopters. A DC-10 jumbo-jet tanker capable of dumping huge loads of retardant began making runs in the afternoon.

The cause of the blaze, which began Tuesday, remained under investigation.

Evacuation shelters were set up, and hotels offered 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 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 the university, and their son was given a stuffed elephant by a Red Cross worker.

At historic Santa Barbara Mission, established by the Spanish in 1786, the Rev. Tom Messner was one of three friars permitted to remain during the evacuation. He helped make sandwiches for the firefighters.

Messner said there was plenty of smoke, but "I can't see the flames, and we have firetrucks in front of the place, so we feel very safe."

Officials said 11 firefighters had been injured, including three burned in a firestorm Wednesday. They were reported in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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