Firefighters were racing early Friday to push back a wind-whipped wildfire that destroyed about 80 homes and a college dormitory in the tony community of Montecito, injured four people and forced thousands to flee the longtime celebrity hideaway.
The fire broke out around 6 p.m. Thursday and quickly spread to about 2,000 acres - more than 3 square miles - destroying dozens of luxury homes and parts of a college campus in the foothills of Montecito, just southeast of Santa Barbara. About 5,400 of the community's 14,000 residents were evacuated and more could be forced to flee if the fire spreads, said Terri Nisich, a spokeswoman with the San Barbara County Executive Office.
At Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college nestled amid wooded rolling hills, some 1,000 students students were caught off-guard by the rapidly moving flames.
"It came pretty fast," said Tyler Rollema, a 19-year-old sophomore, who was eating dinner in the cafeteria when students were told to head to the gym. "We came out and it was just blazing."
Thousands of feet above the flames, footage shot from television helicopters showed what initially looked like a massive campfire with dozens of glowing embers. When cameras zoomed in, however, what appeared to be flaring coals were actually houses - many of them sprawling estates - gutted by flame. Palm trees were lit like burning matches.
"It looked like lava coming down a volcano," Leslie Hollis Lopez said as she gathered belongings from her house.
About 500 firefighters were trying to stop the flames from marching farther west to dense neighborhoods in Santa Barbara. Fire officials planned an aggressive attack from the air at daybreak Friday with the help of nine water-dropping helicopters and 10 air tankers, Nisich said.
The fire was fanned by evening winds known locally as "sundowners," which blew from land to sea late Thursday with gusts up to 70 mph. Around sunset, winds shift from the normal onshore flow of cool, moist sea breezes and push downhill from the Santa Ynez Mountains.
The winds were expected to calm overnight with humidity gradually rising, said Jamie Meier, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. "We're expecting conditions to improve for firefighters on the lines, but it will still be warm and dry through tomorrow," she said.
At Westmont College, the air was dense with smoke and the scent of burning pine. Flames chewed through a eucalyptus grove on the 135-acre campus and destroyed several buildings that housed the physics and psychology departments, a dormitory and at least one faculty home, college spokesman Scott Craig said.
"I saw flames about 100 feet high in the air shooting up with the wind just howling," he said. "Now when the wind howls and you've got palm trees and eucalyptus trees that are literally exploding with their hot oil, you've got these big, red hot embers that are flying through the sky and are catching anything on fire."
Hundreds of students fled to gym, where they spent the night sleeping on the floor. Some stood in groups praying, others sobbed openly and comforted each other.
Beth Lazor, 18, said she was in her dormitory when the alarm went off. She said she only had time to grab her laptop, phone, a teddy bear and a debit card before fleeing the burning building.
Her roommate, Catherine Wilson, said she didn't have time to get anything.
"I came out and the whole hill was glowing," Wilson said. "There were embers falling down."
Montecito, a quiet community known for its Mediterranean-like climate and charming Spanish colonial homes tucked behind lush front yards, has long attracted celebrities such as Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe and Oprah Winfrey, who owns a 42-acre estate there. The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch was the honeymoon site of John F. Kennedy in 1953.
Publicists for Lowe and Winfrey told the AP the celebrities' homes had not been destroyed and neither was not staying in the area Thursday night.
Montecito suffered a major fire in 1977, when more than 200 homes burned. A fire in 1964 burned about 67,000 acres and damaged 150 houses and buildings.
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