SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Firefighters were racing early Friday to push back a wind-whipped wildfire that destroyed at least 100 homes and a college dormitory, injured four people and forced thousands to flee the longtime celebrity hideaway of Montecito. The fire broke out just before 6 p.m. Thursday and spread to about 2,500 acres -- nearly 4 square miles -- by early Friday, destroying dozens of luxury homes and parts of a college campus in the foothills of Montecito, just southeast of Santa Barbara. About 5,400 homes in the tony community of 14,000 residents were evacuated and more people could be forced to flee if the fire spreads, said Nicole Koon, a spokeswoman with the Santa Barbara County Executive Office.
"We believe 100 plus homes have been destroyed," Koon said. "It's our best guess at the moment because it's dark. We're not counting as much as trying to protect the homes."
At Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college nestled amid wooded rolling hills, some 1,000 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 turned out to be 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. By Friday morning, local news stations showed fire chewing some mansions to the ground and plumes of smoke hovered overhead.
About 500 firefighters were trying to stop the flames from marching farther west to dense neighborhoods in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara City Fire spokesman John Ahlman told KABC-TV he spotted about 20 homes burning Thursday night in the city.
Tom Bain, a 54-year-old electrician, said authorities ordered him to leave his home in Santa Barbara around midnight.
Bain quickly collected his three cats, his work files and his computer and was out his house within five minutes. On his way out, he saw at least six mansions on a ridge above his home explode into flames and the cool night air was warmed to about 80 degrees by the fire.
"I saw $15 million in houses burn, without a doubt," Bain said. "They were just blowing up, it was really intensely hot."
About 200 people spent the night at an evacuation center at a high school in nearby Goleta, but rest was out of the question for Ed Naha. He was worried about his home in the hills above Santa Barbara.
"I don't think we are going to have the house when we go back," Naha said.
The 58-year-old writer had been home working on his computer when smoke blanketed his house. He gathered his insurance documents, his wife and two dogs and left as flames approached his neighborhood.
"We are used to seeing smoke because we do have fires up here, but I've never seen that reddish, hellish glow that close," he said. "I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up."
Fire officials began an aggressive attack from the air at daybreak with the help of nine water-dropping helicopters and 10 air tankers, said Terri Nisich, another spokeswoman with the Santa Barbara County Executive Office.
The injured included two firefighters who suffered smoke inhalation and two residents taken to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital with substantial burns, hospital spokeswoman Janet O'Neil said.
The fire was fanned by evening winds known locally as "sundowners," which gusted up to 70 mph from land to sea late Thursday. Around sunset, winds shift from the normal onshore flow of cool, moist sea breezes and push downhill from the Santa Ynez Mountains.
The winds weakened overnight, with gusts reaching from 17 to 25 mph, 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.
The fire temporarily knocked out power to more than 20,000 homes in Santa Barbara, Southern California Edison spokesman Paul Klein 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 housing 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 told AP Radio. "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 cots. Some stood in groups praying, others sobbed openly and comforted each other.
Beth Lazor, 18, said she was in her dorm 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.