Damp weather helps crews battle wildfire - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Damp weather helps crews battle wildfire

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Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009 1:27 pm | Updated: 1:21 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - A blanket of cool ocean mist shrouded the coast on Sunday morning, giving firefighters the break they needed to begin beating back the wildfire that destroyed dozens of buildings and chased thousands of people from their homes.

Fire officials announced Sunday that all but about 350 people would be allowed to return home. However, they warned residents to remain alert and be ready to evacuate again if the weather conditions that drove the fire down into their neighborhoods return.

More than 30,000 people were evacuated at the height of the blaze.

The fire, which charred an area of more than 13 square miles, was 55 percent contained Sunday morning after moist air flowed in from the Pacific Ocean, blocking the dry, daily wind known as the "sundowner" that had roared out of the mountains.

"On all flanks of the fire it's very much laid down, no further progression," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin told reporters Sunday. "We've still got some work to do. It is looking good though."

The blaze isn't expected to be fully contained until at least Wednesday.

Humidity Sunday was 86 percent, according to the National Weather Service, and high temperatures in Santa Barbara were expected to peak at 65 to 75 degrees, as much as 20 degrees cooler than last week.

The milder weather was expected to continue into Monday. The hot, dry sundowner wind is forecast to return Monday night.

"We have a window of opportunity right now to get our lines tied in and to get hot spots mopped up as good as possible because the next couple of days the wind is going to resurface again and we need to be prepared," said Kelley Gouette, deputy incident commander for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Fire officials said the blaze destroyed 31 homes and two detached garages, and damaged 47 other homes, saying an earlier estimate that 80 buildings were destroyed was incorrect.

Cheers erupted at an evacuation center when Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announced Saturday that mandatory evacuation orders for most areas were being downgraded to evacuation warnings, meaning residents could return but would have to remain alert.

The approximately 350 people who remained under evacuation orders on Sunday live in remote canyon areas closest to the blaze.

Water-dropping helicopters continued to shuttle between reservoirs and hot spots but flames were not apparent and the huge plumes of smoke that loomed over the city for days had vanished.

The blaze isn't expected to be fully contained until Wednesday.

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

By Saturday evening, well over half of the those residents were back in their homes, Santa Barbara County sheriff's Commander Darin Fotheringham said.

The fire was driven into outlying residential areas Wednesday by the notorious sundowner wind, which sweeps down the face of the mountains late in the day. The wind returned and fanned the flames again late Thursday and into early Friday.

After that gusty onslaught, the fire was active along a five-mile-long front Friday just above Santa Barbara, west toward neighboring Goleta and east toward the community of Montecito.

However, the sundowner failed to materialize Friday night, and instead the normal flow of air from the Pacific Ocean delivered the dense, moist marine layer that didn't let the sun peek through until nearly midday.

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," Hall said as he had ash cleaned off his daughter's car at a car wash.

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