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Strong winds boost California wildfire

Strong winds were pushing a fierce wildfire above the California coastal city of Santa Barbara closer to populated areas and forced thousands more to flee their homes.

The fire's increasing strength prompted officials to order 6,000 more people to evacuate late last night, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. That pushed the total number of evacuated residents to about 18,000.

The blaze was approaching homes in the city's more populated, flat area below its steep canyons. Santa Barbara city fire spokesman Gary Pitney said flames jumped a road dividing the hilly terrain from the flatlands below and ignited spot fires in brush surrounding houses.

Pitney said the fire also pushed west across a state highway that is the key thoroughfare between Santa Barbara and wine country to the north.

Officials opened a second evacuation shelter to accommodate 900 additional people. All 190 beds were filled at the first shelter at a high school.

The seasonal wildfires that menace the idyllic city — home to screen stars, former presidents and Oprah Winfrey — roared to life earlier in the year than usual but their ferocity is familiar.

By day's end, state officials said the fire grew to 2,739 acres (1,108 hectares) — roughly 4 square miles (10 square kilometers). Firefighters had been on alert for a predicted return of a "Sundowner" — fierce winds that late in the day can sweep down from the Santa Ynez Mountains towering close behind Santa Barbara.

The benignly named Jesusita Fire was a slumbering day-old brush fire on rugged slopes above the city when a Sundowner hit at mid-afternoon Wednesday, hurling towering flames into homes and spitting embers into more distant neighborhoods.

Some 4,715 homes remained evacuated, and another 12,000 people in 5,200 homes were advised to be ready to leave, according to city and county estimates.

About 2,300 firefighters from many departments were on the lines, aided by aircraft. The fire was just 10 percent contained. Firefighters faced extreme conditions: Much of the fire was burning in rugged, inaccessible areas that are rich with fuel.

Authorities reported 10 firefighters injured, including three who sheltered in a house during a firestorm. They were in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center but two faced surgery. Other injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to ankle sprains.

The city's location on the state's central coast gives it some of the best weather in the world, with temperatures routinely topping out in the 70s (20s Celsius), and views of the Pacific Ocean.

Now with a population of about 90,000, it dates to the Spanish colonial era of California and a Roman Catholic mission established in the 1780s is a major tourist attraction.

But the geography that gives it beauty and a serene atmosphere also brings danger.

In November, a wind-driven fire burned 200 houses in Santa Barbara and Montecito, including the home of actor Christopher Lloyd. Winfrey's estate escaped, along with the home of actor Rob Lowe, among many celebrities who have area residences.