Santa Barbara evacuees return home

May 11, 2009 8:36:50 AM PDT
More people who'd been chased out of their homes by the wildfire burning around Santa Barbara, Calif., have been allowed to return. By late yesterday, all but 375 residents from 145 homes had OKs to move back in.

Firefighters, aided by cooler, more humid weather now have the blaze 65 percent contained.

Fire officials say the blaze may have been sparked by the use of a power tool to clear to clear brush on private land.

Some Santa Barbara County residents had recently received annual notices advising them they had until June 1 to clear potentially hazardous brush. It's not clear if the fire started in an area covered by the notice or whether anyone could face charges.

Meanwhile the area is sweating out the possible return of hot, dry winds as early as tomorrow.

Dark skies and tornado-like winds drove Robert Pratini from his hillside during the worst of the wildfire, but he imagined he'd soon be back in the home where he raised his three children.

On Sunday, though, the 88-year old retired junior high school teacher stood on heaps of blackened debris where his house once was. Tearful relatives hugged each other and retrieved what little they could recover: a painting of a sailboat, a stone fountain, and possibly a dresser.

"You always have a glimmer of optimism," said Pratini, who lived there since 1960. "You build up a lot of memories, and a lot of attachments."

Pratini's wife Faye, 79, said the couple doubts they will rebuild.

"It's a lot of riding up and down," she said.

For thousands of evacuees, Sunday brought an end to the heart-wrenching wait to see if their homes had been spared by the wildfires. Many others were more fortunate than the Pratinis, their picturesque houses unchanged except for the stench of smoke and ash on the window sills.

"We were very, very, very lucky, and we always keep knocking on wood," said Marty Conoley, 57, rapping on a coffee table in his undamaged home. "Who would have thunk a fire at this time of year?"

Beth and Scott Gordon drove up to their two-story house with their 14-year old Dalmatian named Buster after the evacuation order was lifted Sunday morning. Their home was unscathed but the blaze had charred a large patch of their lawn.

"I doubt that burned itself out. My sense is the firefighters were protecting us," said Scott Gordon, 49, a movie visual effects supervisor. "I feel pretty lucky."

At least 77 homes have been destroyed since the fire broke out May 5. It has damaged 22 others, cost $9 million to fight, injured 28 firefighters and forced the evacuation of approximately 30,000 people to safer ground.

By early Monday, only about 370 people remained evacuated from 145 homes.

The 13-square-mile blaze was 65 percent surrounded early Monday after several days of cool, calm weather. Gusty winds that caused it to explode last week could return Tuesday but not as fiercely.

Winds were calm early Monday. The National Weather Service forecast a foggy morning and light winds in the evening. Tuesday could see winds gusts to 20 mph.

Officials said Sunday the blaze was apparently was sparked by someone using a power tool to clear brush last Tuesday on private land near the Jesusita Trail and sought public help in identifying the culprit.

The fire moved slowly through high, dry brush until "sundowner" evening winds gusting to 50 mph drove it into multimillion-dollar homes on coastal hillsides ringing Santa Barbara.

Officials declined to comment further about the type of power tool that may have been used, or if anyone could face charges.

Over the weekend, fire officials had praised residents for aggressively cutting back brush.

"More homes would have burned had they not done their defensible space work," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said.

Some Santa Barbara County residents recently received annual notices advising them they had until June 1 to clear potentially hazardous brush, county fire Capt. Glenn Fidler said.

It was not immediately clear whether the blaze originated in an area targeted by such a notice.

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