Residents piled into cars and fled, turning downtown Santa Barbara into "a ghost town" as surging winds drove one of the biggest fires in California's history toward the city and the nearby wealthy enclave of Montecito.
The mandatory evacuations yesterday around Montecito and neighbouring Summerland came as winds that had eased a day earlier roared back at around 48 kph, with gusts to about 97 kph.
Firefighters sprayed water onto hot spots sparked by wind-blown embers. Firefighters also drove to the historic San Ysidro Ranch in yellow fire trucks as heavy smoke rose from the coastal hills, blotting out the blue skies.
A portion of Santa Barbara was under mandatory evacuation. At the city's zoo, workers began putting some animals into crates and kennels, to ready them for possible evacuation.
In downtown Santa Barbara, Maya Schoop-Rutten, owner of Chocolate Maya, said she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear after strong winds blew through.
"It was absolutely incredible," she said. "There was a huge mushroom of smoke that happened in just a matter of a few minutes."
Restaurants and small stores on normally bustling State Street were shuttered.
"It's a ghost town. Everything is shut down," Schoop- Rutten said. "It's very, very eerie."
The northbound lanes of US Highway 101, coming up the coast from Los Angeles, were closed for a few hours south of Santa Barbara, with cars stopped on the freeway.
The 1,046-sq km blaze called the Thomas fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.
"It is right above the homes," fire spokesman Jude Olivas said.
Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.
"Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters," Winfrey tweeted. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.
Pierre Henry, owner of the Bree'osh Bakery in Montecito, said he got a text to evacuate Saturday morning as the fire approached homes.
"The worst was the smoke," Henry said. "You couldn't breathe at all and it became worse when the wind started. All the ashes and the dust on the street were in the air. It was very, very frightening."
The morning passed with no homes damaged or destroyed as firefighters dealt with "extreme and erratic" fire behaviour, Olivas said.
Schoop-Rutten said the fire is taking an economic toll, even if it doesn't invade the city.
"It's tragic for businesses at this time of the year because this is when we make the money," she said. "Imagine all the restaurants, all the Christmas parties have been cancelled. People lost a ton of revenue in the past few days."
There was a spot of good news down the coast. Emergency officials announced that the same fire that was burning about 40 km southeast of Montecito was 40 percent contained. Evacuation orders for the city of Ventura were lifted. As the northerly "sundowner" wind was driving the fire south and west, firefighters could only hope it would calm back down.
"When the sundowners surface in that area and the fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it," Mark Brown, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told a news conference. "And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations."
Olivas said 400 fire engines were sent to protect homes in the area. The fire is now the third-largest in California history. It has burned more than 700 homes and killed a state firefighter.
There were no new reports of damage to homes yesterday and Olivas said firefighters manage to prevent thousands of homes from being consumed. Winds were expected to ease somewhat today with gusts of up to 56 kph but Olivas said winds of those intensity are still extremely dangerous. "It will go down a little bit, hopefully we can do the same job that we did today," he said.