AFP - Thousands of residents forced to flee a wildfire raging in California returned home Saturday as cooler weather allowed firefighters to gain the upper hand on the blaze.
A moist layer of marine mist from the Pacific Ocean had drifted over the coastal town of Santa Barbara after days of sizzling temperatures and powerful local gusts sent the fire roaring out of control.
The benign weather enabled firefighters to increase containment of the blaze to 40 percent, officials said. So far, the flames have destroyed or damaged some 80 homes and scorched 8,700 acres (3,500 hectares).
Fire officials expressed optimism 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.
"We're going from a defensive in the past few days to an offensive," said fire commander Kevin Wallace. "We're going to start chasing the fire and not have it chase us."
Fire commanders said the fire could be fully contained by Wednesday but cautioned that the weather conditions which 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 were 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 said at an emergency shelter to applause from evacuees.
Around 15,000 people were given the green light to return home.
An army of around 4,300 firefighters tackled the fire Saturday. Fourteen air tankers, including a retardant-dropping DC-10 jet plane, and 15 helicopters were bombarding the fire in a sustained aerial assault.
So far, 13 mostly minor injuries have been reported in the fire, including 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.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared a state of emergency in the region earlier this week, toured an evacuation center Saturday along with actor Rob Lowe, one of many celebrities who live in the region.
California is frequently hit by scorching wildfires due to its dry climate, 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.