SANTA BARBARA — Afternoon winds stoked a day-old brush fire into an out-of-control blaze Wednesday, sending it hopscotching across exclusive canyon neighborhoods and leaving firefighters nearly powerless before its advance.
The airborne embers ignited multimillion-dollar homes on the ridgetops. Firefighters did not offer an exact count, but photographers in helicopters in the smoky skies estimated that at least 20 homes had been incinerated.
By night, the fire had torched 500 acres and driven 8,000 people from their homes in Santa Barbara.
The job of about 900 firefighters, air tankers and helicopters was hampered by poor access to the mountainous terrain, officials said, as well as winds of up to 50 mph and dense brush that hadn’t burned in half a century.
“We are in a state of extreme emergency,” said David Sadecki, Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman. “We’re running very, very thin.”
By evening, winds had begun to die down and firefighters gained some control, though they remained wary that winds could kick up again today and fuel the blaze.
The Jesusita fire, named for a nearby trail, is the city’s third major wildfire in nine months.
The fire broke out Tuesday in wildlands and spread through brush north of the city. For most of Tuesday and early Wednesday, the fire seemed relatively tame.
Early Wednesday, firefighters even recalculated the burned acreage to be smaller than first estimated.
Then, about 3 p.m., winds known as “sundowners,” typical for Santa Barbara this time of year, whipped down through passes and canyons above the city.
The fire leaped into nearby residential areas in Mission Canyon, a community of mansions tucked along narrow, winding roads amid thick brush and tall trees — and resembling the Oakland hills, which burned to the ground in 1991.
As the fire escalated, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County, freeing federal emergency funds. Three firefighters were injured, including two Ventura County firefighters who suffered moderate burns. A third firefighter was also treated for a minor injury.
James Massie, 52, was at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, the command post for fire crews, where he had driven Wednesday night to find out whether his three-bedroom home at the top of Mission Canyon had survived.
Massie, an inventor who lived in the home with his wife, a graphic artist, had planned to defend their home. But mid-afternoon, he said, they watched flames as high as 100-feet march across the canyon toward them.
“The air was thick with smoke. You could barely breathe,” he said, still dressed in the jeans, workshirt and flip-flops he had worn to battle the fire. “When the winds changed, all bets were off. The energy changed completely. Everything was moving very quickly and there was no guarantee we would live.”
Massie said he and his wife left with artwork, two cats and important documents.
They did not learn whether their house was still standing.
The upper part of the neighborhood now “looks like a moonscape,” said Tim Steele, president of the Mission Canyon Association in a phone interview from a nearby golf course where he was watching the fire.
“I thought we had this one under control,” he said. “I underestimated Mother Nature.”
The association has made brush clearance and fire prevention a top priority, Steele said, even bringing in 250 goats Tuesday to eat away vegetation. The goats were evacuated unharmed after the fire ignited.
But north Santa Barbara is where the city meets the wildlands.
“It doesn’t matter what you do,” Santa Barbara Mayor Pro Tem Dale Francisco told a TV reporter. “When these winds are blowing hard enough, nothing can stop it.”
The Santa Barbara Fire Department’s Sadecki said that the afternoon winds were so fierce that some firefighters were pulled back from the brush and assigned to protect homes. Some later returned to the front lines.
Helicopters and aircraft also were temporarily grounded.