SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Fierce winds blew a wildfire into Southern California homes Wednesday, forcing thousands of people to flee as columns of smoke rose from a scenic coastal enclave.

TV news helicopters showed many homes ablaze in Santa Barbara, but the number could not immediately be 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.

The fire had burned 200 acres, or about one-third of a square mile, by midday when winds were calm, then was whipped by up to 50 mph gusts. By sunset, it was 500 acres - about three-fourths of a square mile - and winds were down to 25 mph, said Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki.