SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Firefighters rushed to wipe out the last remnants of a wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in the hills above this scenic coastal city, racing against winds that might whip the blaze back to life.
The 13-square-mile blaze was 70 percent encircled after several days of good weather over the Santa Ynez Mountains and full containment was expected Wednesday.
But the National Weather Service issued a “fire weather watch” for the local mountains and south Santa Barbara County from late Tuesday afternoon through Thursday morning due to gusty north winds and low relative humidity.
The area’s “sundowner” winds typically appear during evening hours or late afternoons in certain conditions, blowing from north to south down passes and canyons just above Santa Barbara and adjacent communities.
Roberta LaRocco, a Santa Barbara County spokeswoman, said there was concern “but we are optimistic.”
Firefighters were mainly dousing hot spots and carving containment lines in wilderness areas north of the city in Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Sarah Gibson said.
“There is no open flame,” Gibson said.
The 8,733-acre fire – equal to about 13 1/2 square miles – broke out May 5 and destroyed 77 homes and damaged 22 others, according to county estimates. Sixty outbuildings were also destroyed and 69 others were damaged.
Approximately 145 homes remained evacuated, affecting some 360 people, down from 30,500 people at the fire’s height. It has cost $10.8 million to fight and has injured 28 firefighters.
Most people returned Sunday to unscathed homes.
“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?”
Others weren’t as lucky. Robert Pratini, an 88-year old retired teacher, stood with relatives on heaps of blackened debris where his hillside house once stood. His wife. Faye, 79, said they doubt they will rebuild.
“You always have a glimmer of optimism,” said Pratini, who had lived there since 1960. “You build up a lot of memories, and a lot of attachments.”
Officials said the blaze apparently was started by someone using a power tool to clear brush last Tuesday on private land near the Jesusita Trail. They asked the public for help in identifying the tool user.
Officials declined to comment further about the type of power tool that may have been used, or if anyone could face charges.
During the weekend, fire officials praised residents for aggressively cutting back brush that could have fueled the blaze.