Thousands of people fled for their lives as an out-of-control wildfire destroyed at least 20 houses in the posh Southern California city of Santa Barbara and threatened thousands more.
Strong winds that have been forecast threatened to spread the 526-hectare fire, which started late Wednesday, more than a month before summer officially begins, underscoring the growing threat facing California as climate change makes wildfires bigger and more frequent.
The Jesusita fire was fed by winds of up to 80 km an hour, which sent clouds of glowing embers and thick blankets of smoke across the Pacific Coast mountainsides and toward the densely populated town centre and the ocean. Television pictures showed multimillion-dollar houses burned to their foundations.
With temperatures soaring to 37 degrees, more than 5,400 homes were evacuated late Wednesday as the evening winds whipped what had been a previously manageable fire into an unstoppable inferno.
The National Weather Service warned of “explosive” fire growth potential due to the combination of high winds and dead brush to fuel the fire in the foothills and coastal areas under threat. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the site of the fire on Thursday after declaring a state of emergency. He said that a total of 13,575 homes are under mandatory evacuation orders and 13,000 more are under recommended evacuation.
“I thought we were going to die,” homeowner Albert Lindemann told broadcaster KTLA-TV. “Until I started seeing those firemen coming in there, I didn’t think any human being could be out there.”
Ten firefighters were injured when the blaze overran their engine, the Santa Barbara News-Press reported. Some 1,400 firefighters were battling the blaze, supported from the air by 12 airplanes and helicopters.The fire came six months after a blaze in the same area burned more than 200 houses. It was the third blaze there in nine months.