SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Firefighters held their own Friday against a dangerous wildfire that destroyed more than 100 homes in a wealthy, celebrity-studded enclave and credited lighter-than-expected winds for helping them keep the blaze from growing.
But authorities cautioned that the blaze in tony Montecito was still uncontained and could flare up again as wind gusts of up to 30 mph picked up at sundown, despite a day of grueling work by more than 1,000 firefighters. Several more homes burned Friday in a quaint and secluded area that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey, who owns a 42-acre estate there.
"It's not a time to relax," said Santa Barbara County Deputy Fire Chief Tom Franklin. "Everybody's got to be diligent through tonight. It's the last evening of these wind events."
Franklin said "upwards of 150 homes" may have burned in the area and asked for patience from residents as crews try to catalog the devastation in remote hilly areas accessible only by winding roads. There were 3,500 parcels in the hardest-hit area and all homes might not be accounted for until Sunday, said Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Ron Prince.
"We want to make sure the area is completely safe before we let people back in there," he said. "I have to beg, basically, for your patience."
The fire may also have claimed a victim: a 98-year-old man with multiple medical problems died after being evacuated to a hotel, but it was unclear if his death was directly related to the blaze, Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said. No more details were immediately available.
Earlier Friday, blistering winds gusting to 70 mph, dry brush and oil-rich eucalyptus trees helped turn an ordinary brush fire into an exploding inferno that quickly consumed rows of luxury homes and part of a Christian college campus where students spent the night in a gymnasium shelter.
The fire began about 6 p.m. Thursday before it chewed through multimillion dollar homes whose shattered windows glowed like jack-o-lanterns as they blazed through the night.
"That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom," said Bob McNall, 70, who with his son and grandson saved their home by hosing it down. "The whole sky was full of embers, there was nothing that they could do. It was just too much."
A state of emergency was declared in Santa Barbara County and about 5,400 homes were evacuated in Montecito, a town of 14,000 where Los Angeles-weary celebrities rub shoulders with friendly locals who have lived there for years.
Lowe, the actor, said he fled with his children as fire engulfed the mountain and flames shot 200 feet in the air. The family stopped to check on neighbors and found them trapped behind their automatic car gate, which was stuck because the power was out. Lowe said he helped get the big gates open.
"Embers were falling. Wind was 70 miles an hour, easily, and it was just like Armageddon," Lowe told KABC-TV. "You couldn't hear yourself think." Lowe said his house hadn't burned.
Fueled by vast stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees — which exploded when lit — and decades of chaparral and other growth, the fire quickly ends left their homes with only their dogs last night as I was calling, 'Are you all right? Are you all right?' They said, 'We have the dogs and the kids aren't here, so we're OK."'
Evacuee Tom Bain relived the hellish scene after fleeing his home in five minutes with his three cats, some work files and a computer. On the way out, he saw at least six mansions on the ridge above his home explode in flames.
"I saw $15 million in houses burn, without a doubt," said the 54-year-old electrician. "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, a 58-year-old writer who feared he lost his home in the hills above Santa Barbara.
"We are used to seeing smoke because we do have fires up here, but I've never seen that reddish, hellish glow that close," Naha said. "I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up."
Flames had licked at the home of Gwen Dandridge, 61, and her husband Joshua Schimel, 51, but it was still standing when they returned Friday morning — something the couple attributed to lots of weed-whacking to clear the brush around the home.
"We have a house! We have a house!" Dandridge shouted said as she first spied the home.
Montecito, a quiet community known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities.
The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch was the honeymoon site of John F. Kennedy in 1953.
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.