By David Gardner
Thousands of residents have fled from a wind-fuelled inferno that has devastated exclusive multi-million pound homes in Santa Barbara, California.
At least 20 mansions have been destroyed by flames that have hop-scotched through upscale neighbourhoods in the coastal tourist resort.
Hundreds more homes are threatened due to gusts of up to 65mph as the fire enters its third day today.
Blaze: A home in the hills above Santa Barbara, California, is consumed from the inside out by flames
The interior of this house is nearly white-hot as a fireman sprays a jet of water
All of the homes in the area - including this one - were said to be worth at least $1million
Even as a newly reinforced crew of 1,400 firefighters battled the blaze, which was being investigated as an arson, the estimated size of the conflagration had nearly tripled to roughly 1,300 acres earlier today.
Another 3,500 homes remain threatened and authorities ordered 13,500 people to evacuate their homes, he said.
As a house rests on the verge of destruction, a helicopter performs a water drop to help quell the flames
The Jesusita fire burns dangerously close to a home in the foothills
Homes have been devastated by the fearsome wall of fire
A handful of homeowners ignored warnings to flee and stayed behind in a bid to help save their own houses.
'I didn't want to lose my home. It's that simple,' said homeowner Albert Lindemann, adding that his house ultimately was saved by firefighters who arrived just in time.
'I thought we were going to die,' he said. 'Until I started seeing those firemen coming in there, I didn't think any human being could be out there.'
A firefighter tackles the flames as they consume another Santa Barbara house in California
The individual flames consuming the house are startlingly clear in this photograph
A fireman shoots a jet of water onto the California flames that is so powerful it looks like a solid pole
Authorities said rugged terrain, thick brush and gale-force winds made it difficult to gain an upper hand on the blaze. Winds died down overnight, allowing an aerial assault by water-dropping helicopters to continue round-the-clock.
As of earlier today, 10 firefighters have been injured, including three whose engine was overrun by flames on Wednesday while they struggled to save a home. They were reported to be in serious condition but expected to recover.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County on Wednesday, a move that frees up additional funds and equipment. He also visited the area to view the rescue operation.
A water tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire in the foothills
David and Goliath battle: A helicopter dumps water on fire raging in the foothills
A beautiful villa stands nestled on a hillside - but flames loom closer and closer
The Jesusita blaze, named after a nearby hiking trail, is the city’s third major wildfire in the last nine months.
Celebrities including former Mony Python John Cleese, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, actors Rob Lowe and Jeff Bridges and talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, all own hideaway homes in the area, but none were said to be in immediate danger last night.
Fire fighters seemed to have the flames under control at first, but more than 500 acres were torched after strong winds, called sundowners, whipped down through canyons and passes above the city.
Embers fly during the Jesusita fire, with winds reaching 65mph helping to fan the flames
Firemen battle to save a smaller home
Neighbourhoods north of Santa Barbara were left looking ‘like a moonscape,’ according to residents.
‘I thought we had this one under control,’ said the chairman of an upscale housing association, who brought in 250 goats to eat away vegetation around golf course homes threatened by the flames.
‘I underestimated Mother Nature,’ he said, adding that the goats were evacuated before the fire closed in.
Santa Barbara, with a population of more than 400,000, is 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
The city dates to the Spanish colonial era and is a major holidaymaker spot on the state’s central coast.
‘They’re all very nice homes. There’s no shacks in that area,’ said resident Steve Pivato.
‘It’s raining ash all the way to the beach,’ said another local, Jason Coggins.
The scorched remains of a home can be seen as firefighters bring a blaze under control
Embers fly as a firefighter battles to get inside a burning house