SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A wind-driven brush fire destroyed at least 70 homes Thursday in the tony enclave of Montecito, forcing residents to evacuate what has long been a celebrity hideaway, then spread into nearby Santa Barbara, burning more houses.
Television footage showed flames engulfing dozens of large multimillion-dollar houses. Montecito fire spokeswoman Geri Ventura said about a quarter of the community of 10,000 people was evacuated and more could be moved if the fire spreads.
The fire broke out shortly before 6 p.m. and quickly spread through more than 300 acres in the foothills five miles south of Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara City Fire spokesman John Ahlman told KABC-TV he spotted about 20 homes burning Thursday night.
In Montecito, several fire departments were battling the flames as thick plumes of smoke hovered overhead.
“It looked like lava coming down a volcano,” Leslie Hollis Lopez told The Associated Press as she gathered belongings from her house.
It was not immediately known whether any celebrities’ homes had burned or whether anyone was injured.
One resident said the area was deserted.
“You can just hear the explosions … of vehicles, homes,” Michaelo Rosso told KCAL-TV as he prepared to leave his home. “It sounds like the Fourth of July out here.”
About 125 engines and three water-dropping helicopters were en route or at the scene, said Xenia Tihomirova, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County.
Firefighters faced wind gusts as high as 70 mph Thursday night. Gusts were expected to remain strong through early today, according to the National Weather Service in Oxnard. The fierce winds known locally as “sundowners” blow from land to sea in the evening, reversing the normal onshore flow of cool, moist sea breezes. They are caused by the area’s unique topography.
The fire temporarily knocked out power to more than 20,000 homes in Santa Barbara, said Southern California Edison spokesman Paul Klein. He said only scattered pockets of homes were without power by late Thursday.
An emergency shelter was set up at a high school and students at Westmont College were told to gather in the school’s gym. The fire damaged several buildings at the college, according to the school’s Web site.
Montecito and its ocean views have long attracted celebrities such as Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe and Oprah Winfrey, who owns a 42-acre estate. 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 that neither was 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 — nearly 105 square miles — and damaged 150 houses and buildings.