Santa Barbara evacuations being lifted

May 9, 2009 3:24:54 PM PDT
Thousands of evacuees were told they could go home Saturday as a blanket of cool, moist air flowing in from the ocean brought a dramatic change, taming the wind-driven wildfire that had burned 80 homes along the outskirts of town. Cheers erupted at an evacuation center when Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announced that mandatory evacuation orders for most areas were being downgraded to evacuation warnings, meaning residents could return but would have to remain alert.

Among the first to return were Jonathan Kenny, 44, and his wife, Susan Kim, 42, who found their home covered in ash but still standing near blackened hillsides that showed just how close the fire came.

"I feel like we dodged a bullet on this one," said Kenny, who watered plants and fed goldfish in a backyard pond.

"They're not floating belly up so that's a good sign," Kim said.

But a short distance away up a narrow canyon road, gutted homes and burned out cars awaited the return of their owners. A scorched palm tree jutted toward a clear, blue sky and a lawn chair, scorched appliances and metal filing cabinets were among the few recognizable remnants.

More than 30,000 people had been under mandatory evacuation orders dating back as far as Tuesday afternoon, when the fire erupted just above Santa Barbara on the face of steep Santa Ynez Mountains. An additional 23,000 had been on evacuation standby.

Notorious local winds known as "sundowners" sweeping from inland and down the face of the mountains drove the fire into outlying neighborhoods Wednesday afternoon, causing most of the destruction, and again late Thursday and early Friday.

A predicted sundowner failed to materialize Friday night, and instead the normal flow of air from the Pacific Ocean pushed ashore a dense, moist marine layer that didn't let the sun peek through until nearly midday. Officials had said an onshore flow would raise humidity levels and blow the fire away from developed areas on the foothills.

Firefighters were cautious but said the blaze that had covered more than13 square miles was 30 percent contained. On Friday it had been active along a five-mile front just above Santa Barbara, west toward neighboring Goleta and east toward the community of Montecito.

Brown said the evacuations were being lifted in phases to avoid traffic jams from returning residents.

"We hope to get everyone back as soon as possible, but it's nice to be able to deliver some good news to you, for a change." the sheriff said.

Resident Eric Hall, 59, said he believed the worst was over when he felt the mist sweep in off the ocean.

"The weather is cooperating," said Hall, who was having ash cleaned off his daughter's car at a car wash.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited evacuees housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus before the sheriff's announcement.

"I think one woman came up to me and said 'I like it here much better than my home because here finally I'm getting served other than me always having to provide for the family.' So there's a great sense of humor here," Schwarzenegger said.

Actor Rob Lowe, an area resident, said the fire was scary but he shared the governor's sentiment about how residents have dealt with it.

"This kind of a fire was touch-and-go for a long time," he said. "I've got a lot of friends who have been evacuated. We're sheltering people at our house. The community just pulled together."

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Associated Press Video Journalist John Mone and writer Amy Taxin contributed to this report.

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