A wind-driven wildfire raged through an area of the Santa Cruz Mountains on Thursday, destroying at least a handful of homes, closing schools and prompting evacuations.
The blaze, first reported about 5:30 a.m., had burned through more than 3,000 acres and was 15% contained by Thursday evening, said officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The cause was under investigation.
A thick cloud of smoke was visible on rural roads as far as 20 miles to the east. Straddling the mountain range that separates Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, the fire was whipped by winds that gusted to 50 mph.
Officials said it destroyed 12 structures and threatened about 500 more in a forested region laced with winding roads and dotted with homes.
A few hours after the blaze started, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was tracking it closely.
"It's very important to battle these things the first few hours of the first few days," he said at a Silicon Valley campaign event with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).
About eight miles south of the blaze, a general store in the tiny community of Corralitos played host to several hundred worried residents who were hoping to return to their hillside homes after the danger passed.
"It's a little crazy out here," said Dave Peterson, owner of the Corralitos Market and Sausage Co.
"I'm looking at 300 or 400 people in front of the store, with vans, pickups, U-Hauls and horse trailers. All they can do is sit and wait."
Ash drifted down from the mountains, and embers occasionally popped as Peterson spoke. He said he had given away water and coffee, running his store's lights and refrigerators on a generator after power in the community went out.
"I've been here 34 years and am going to hang in here as long as I can," he said. "These folks have supported the store for so long, and now it's our turn to help them."
Next to the butchers' counter, a phone rang constantly.
"We've had so many calls from people asking, 'Can you go yell into the house? I'm worried about my father or grandfather,' " said Andrew Chelone, a 21-year-old employee who was making a lamb sausage sandwich.
"One guy called from Tennessee. Another man said he hadn't heard from his 84-year-old father. People are worried."
Outside, some temporarily displaced residents gazed north toward the smoke billowing from the area near their homes.
A few wore surgical masks to guard against the constant fall of ashes.
Like others, Lynn Fonseca, 57, was angry over what she said was lax notification efforts by firefighters.
"I was amazed I didn't get a phone call," said Fonseca, who lives with her husband, Juan Carlos Fonseca, in the flame-swept Eureka Canyon area. "I had to call them."
The couple said that several of their neighbors apparently had lost their homes.
Angel Alatorre, 32, was red-eyed from plumes of thick smoke she had encountered around her Eureka Canyon home.
"I walked outside and it was raining ashes," said Alatorre, the mother of a 17-month-old. "Neighbors were yelling, 'Get out! Get out!' "
About 1,400 residents were asked to voluntarily leave their homes, and about 350 were in mandatory evacuation areas, officials said.
In the evacuated fire zone Thursday afternoon, firefighters were driven back not just by flames but also by trees toppling in the wind. On an isolated, hard-hit street called Dove Lane, at least two houses burned to their foundations.
At one, a dozen full-grown marijuana plants sat in green pots. An inch-thick layer of ash coated everything.
Elsewhere, a couple of brothers walked past a police checkpoint and borrowed a cousin's car for a 30-minute ride to the two remote cottages they bought 18 months ago. Dodging severed tree limbs and flames licking across the narrow road, Levi and Jackson Barnard found that their places had survived.
Retrieving boxes of photos and a fistful of marathon medals that belonged to their girlfriends, they stopped to talk with state firefighter Jed Wilson.
"You can always replace your belongings," Wilson told them. "Life is precious."
Back on Corralitos' normally placid main street, citizens took turns trying to unsnarl traffic jams.
At the Corralitos Community Church, pastor David Harris said he had been trying to help distraught residents all day.
"We had several people who came down who said when they left homes, there was fire above and fire below," Harris said. "They have no idea if there's anything left."
No injuries have been reported.
Three schools didn't open because of the fire threat.
People were evacuated from an area that spanned about 340 homes, officials said.
About 500 firefighters were on the scene and more were on the way, authorities said.
Four helicopters and four air tankers were called in to drop chemical retardants over the flames.
But winds were gusting as high as 50 mph, whipping the fire out of control and making drops on targets more difficult than usual, officials said. Slightly weaker winds were forecast for today.
"The wind has been just terrible," said John Whiteside, a forestry department spokesman at an agency office in Morgan Hill, south of San Jose. "Today it's been difficult just to walk out there. I've never seen anything like it."
Times staff writers Francisco Vara-Orta and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.