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Santa Barbara Wildfire Envelops Homes

Fierce winds blew a wildfire into Southern California homes Wednesday, forcing residents to flee as columns of smoke rose from a scenic coastal enclave.

TV news helicopters showed homes ablaze in Santa Barbara, but the number could not be immediately determined because of thick smoke columns that scattered embers over the city and streamed out over the Pacific Ocean.

Huge mansions and humble homes alike were reduced to rubble, leaving palm trees swaying over gutted ruins.

Authorities ordered 2,000 homes evacuated Wednesday afternoon, up from an earlier evacuation order of 1,200.

Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said the fire was moving rapidly and was being whipped by up to 50 mph gusts. It had burned 200 acres by midday but the new size wasn't immediately available.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the area and asked federal authorities to issue an assistance grant to ensure financial resources are available for firefighting.

The flames erupted Tuesday and quickly spread through brush at elevations above the city, which still bears the scars of a November blaze, known as the T-fire, that burned more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito.

Fortunately winds at this time of year are more favorable for firefighters, reports CBS News correspondent Maneul Gallegus.

"If this fire had started later in the year like the T-fire did, we would have a whole different story here," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin told Gallegus.

Sadecki said there were unconfirmed reports of two firefighters being overrun by flames. An unknown number of firefighters were en route to Grossman Burn Center in Los Angeles, charge nurse Helena San Marco told The Associated Press.

Mayor Marty Blum said other firefighters remained perilously close to the flames.

Photos: Jesusita Wildfires
Seen from Laurel Canyon Road, a helicopter makes a drop on a fire near Santa Barbara, Calif. on Tuesday, May 5, 2009. (Photo: AP)

"We have got a couple firefighters in a real tentative situation up there surrounded by some flames, so we are hoping to get them out of there," Blum told KABC-TV.

One firefighter suffered a head injury, earlier in the day.

More than 800 firefighters were on the lines, and 20 more strike teams totaling about 1,300 firefighters were requested.

"The firefighters are picking houses and seeing if they can make a stand," Sadecki said.

The blaze bore down on the city at frightening speed, said Chad Jenson, a food server at Giovanni's Pizza.

"The sky is just deep orange and black, pretty much our whole hillside is going down," Jenson said.

In a city that has experienced a number of wildfires, Jenson said this one was as close to the city center as any he had seen. Less than six months ago a fire destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito.

Steve Pivato, a Goleta resident, said the homes in the threatened area cost at least $1 million. "There's no shacks in that area," he said.

Pivato said the smoke from the fire turned from gray to black as he drove home: "That's the color when homes starts burning."

Jason Coggins, a waiter at the Kyoto Japanese Restaurant in Santa Barbara, said several traffic lights went out, causing multiple fender benders and traffic problems and that the air was thick with ash.

"It's raining ash all the way down to the beach," Coggins said.

Santa Barbara, which has about 90,000 residents, rises rapidly from the Pacific coastline on the south to the foothills of the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains to the north. It is sometimes subject to "sundowners" - strong winds that blow downslope through passes and canyons of the mountain range and offshore. The tourist destination is about 100 miles west of Los Angeles.

Elsewhere, a fire in rural southeastern Arizona had destroyed three houses near Sierra Vista and injured one person. The fire had charred about 1,500 acres near Fort Huachuca. Containment was estimated at 25 percent early Wednesday.

And a strong band of storms sweeping across eastern North Carolina spawned a series of tornado warnings and officials said one twister may have touched down in Wilson County.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or official reports of damage.

The National Weather Service said it had indications a tornado touched down, but could not immediately confirm that.

Television stations reported that homes were damaged. A man identified as Walt Dixon told CBS affiliate WRAL-TV that he saw five houses damaged and a barn in pieces.

Dixon also said power lines had been brought down.

A dispatcher at the Wilson County Sheriff's Office said there were no immediate reports of injuries or damages.