Residents piled into cars and fled on Saturday, 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 around Montecito and neighboring Summerland came as winds that had eased a day earlier roared back at around 30 mph (48 kph), with gusts to about 60 mph (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 U.S. 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 404-square-mile (1,046-sq. kilometer) 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.
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."
Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighborhoods to the legions attacking it: about 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters.
The cause remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $100 million.