- California - USA - wildfires
AFP - Cooler weather and light winds on Saturday enabled firefighters to make progress against a California wildfire, allowing thousands of evacuees to return to their homes.
A foggy layer of marine mist from the Pacific Ocean had earlier drifted over the coastal town after days of sizzling temperatures and powerful local gusts that sent the fire roaring out of control.
The benign weather enabled firefighters to increase containment of the blaze to 30 percent overnight, officials said. So far, the flames have destroyed some 80 homes and scorched 8,700 acres (3,500 hectares).
Fire officials expressed optimism Saturday that the weather break would see them make further inroads into the blaze, which was now burning away from Santa Barbara and into unpopulated mountain areas.
"The fire laid down last night and that was due to the weather," Santa Barbara County fire captain Dave Sadecki told NBC4 local television.
"Yesterday, we had high temperatures, low humidity and extremely windy conditions; now, we have decreased temperatures, increased humidity and we've got a layer of fog. That's all good for the firefight."
Fire commanders have said the fire could be fully contained by May 13 but cautioned that the weather conditions that fueled the fire could return.
"The weather tends to be a little fickle around here, so we're keeping our guard up," Santa Barbara County Deputy Fire Chief Chris Hahn.
Later Saturday, officials said most mandatory evacuation orders -- which had forced 30,500 people to leave their homes -- had been lifted. Residents would be allowed to return in phases throughout the day.
"I don't have the exact figures, but the bulk of the people that have been displaced are now going to be able to go home," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.
An army of around 4,200 firefighters has been deployed to tackle the fire. Fourteen air tankers, including a retardant-dropping DC-10 jet plane, and 15 helicopters were bombarding the fire in a sustained aerial assault Saturday.
So far, 13 mostly minor injuries have been reported in the fire. The injured included three firefighters who were overrun by flames on Wednesday. Two of the men are still being treated for burns while the third has been released.
Meanwhile, evacuees from the fire huddled at emergency shelters set up by the Red Cross at a local high school and a gymnasium on the University of California's Santa Barbara campus.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared a state of emergency in the region earlier this week, toured the evacuation center Saturday.
California is frequently hit by scorching wildfires due to its dry climate, Santa Ana winds and recent housing booms that have seen home construction spread rapidly into rural and densely forested areas.
In 2007, California suffered devastation from wildfires among the worst in its history that left eight people dead, gutted 2,000 homes, displaced 640,000 people and caused one billion dollars in damage.
Last November, at least 100 homes were destroyed by a wildfire in the celebrity enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara.