Santa Barbara, Calif. Thousands of residents were back home Saturday as a blanket of cool, moist air flowing in from the Pacific Ocean tamed a wind-driven wildfire that burned 80 homes along the outskirts of town during the week.
Cheers erupted at an evacuation center when Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announced that mandatory evacuation orders for most areas were being downgraded to evacuation warnings, meaning residents could return but would have to remain alert.
Among the first to return were Jonathan Kenny, 44, and his wife, Susan Kim, 42, who found their home covered in ash but still standing near blackened hillsides that showed just how close the fire came.
“I feel like we dodged a bullet on this one,” said Kenny, who watered plants and fed goldfish in a backyard pond.
“They’re not floating belly up, so that’s a good sign,” Kim said.
But a short distance away up a narrow canyon road, gutted homes and burned-out cars awaited the return of their owners. A scorched palm tree jutted toward a clear, blue sky and a lawn chair, scorched appliances and metal filing cabinets were among the few recognizable remnants.
More than 30,000 people had been under mandatory evacuation orders dating back as far as Tuesday afternoon, when the fire erupted just above Santa Barbara on the face of steep Santa Ynez Mountains. An additional 23,000 had been on evacuation standby.
By Saturday evening, well more than half of those residents were back in their homes, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Commander Darin Fotheringham said.
The blaze was expected to be fully contained by Wednesday.