SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Turning the horizon a lurid orange and raining embers on roofs as it advanced, a raging wildfire that has destroyed scores of homes in the hills menaced this celebrity enclave and other coastal towns Friday, and the number of people ordered to flee climbed to more than 30,000.
Authorities warned an additional 23,000 to be ready to leave at a moment's notice, despite improving weather conditions.
"There will be a point in the incident when I will have cautious optimism but I'm not there yet," said Joe Waterman, the overall fire commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Columns of smoke rose off the Santa Ynez Mountains as the 4-day-old blaze grew to 8,600 acres, creating a firefighting front five miles long.
"It's crazy. The whole mountain looked like an inferno," said Maria Martinez, 50, who with her fiance hurriedly left her home in San Marcos Pass, on the edge of Santa Barbara. The couple went to an evacuation center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Fierce "sundowner" winds that sweep down the slopes in the evening didn't happen as predicted, but Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin warned they could return "and blow the fire back downhill." Instead, breezes blew in from the Pacific Ocean late Friday, pushing the fire away from homes, he said.
Officials estimated 80 homes were destroyed — most of them on Wednesday — in neighborhoods on ridges and in canyons above Santa Barbara.
No deaths or serious injuries were reported.
"Literally last night, all hell broke loose," Santa Barbara Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said Friday morning, recounting firefighters' efforts to put out roof fires and keep flames out of his section of the city.
The eight-member Wasjutin family arrived at the university campus in three cars and a trailer packed with four dogs, eight baby chickens, two cockatiels, an iguana, a rat named Cutie and an African spur tortoise. They fled their 40-acre San Marcos Pass property after watching the flames grow closer. They left three horses and three hens behind.
"We drove down through fire on both sides," said Silvia Wasjutin, 48, a speech pathologist.
In a scene of strange contrasts, students bicycled to classes and midterms as ash fell on campus, and boats bobbed in Santa Barbara's harbor as smoke rose from the mountains above town.
The Santa Barbara area has long been a favorite of celebrities. Oprah Winfrey has an estate in Montecito, where Charlie Chaplin's old seaside escape, the Montecito Inn, has stood since 1928. A ranch in the mountains that Ronald and Nancy Reagan bought became his Western retreat during his presidency.
More than 2,300 firefighters battled the blaze, using at least 246 engines, 14 air tankers and 15 helicopters. A DC-10 jumbo jet tanker capable of dumping huge loads of retardant began making runs on the fire in the afternoon.
Fire officials raised the fire's size estimate to 8,600 acres from 3,500, based on more accurate surveying from aircraft during daytime flights. The smaller estimate came from firefighters at night on the ground, said fire spokesman Dennis Mathisen.
The cause of the blaze, which broke out Tuesday, remained under investigation.
Evacuation shelters were set up, and hotels offered deals to evacuees.
"Right now, if you're not evacuated in the Santa Barbara area, you are sheltering evacuees," DiMizio said.
Oscar Funez, 39, his wife, Patricia, 42, and their son, Augustin, 4, were watching the fire on television Thursday night when they noticed other tenants leaving their Santa Barbara apartment building. They packed a suitcase and fled, too.
"It's our fourth fire in Santa Barbara. We know we have to have everything — paperwork, clothes, everything — ready to go," Oscar Funez said.
The family spent the night on cots at the university, and their little boy was given a stuffed elephant toy by a Red Cross worker. "We must be bad parents, because we didn't bring his stuffed animals," his father joked.
At historic Santa Barbara Mission, established by the Spanish in 1786, the Rev. Tom Messner was one of three friars permitted to remain during the evacuation. He helped make sandwiches for the firefighters.
Messner said there was plenty of smoke, but "I can't see the flames, and we have firetrucks in front of the place, so we feel very safe." The church, a major tourist attraction, was built in 1820, after an earthquake destroyed the previous structure.
Officials said 11 firefighters had been injured, including three burned in a firestorm Wednesday. They were reported in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center.