Hundreds Return Home Amid Calif. Wildfires

Margaret Kliegel was at the fire command center dropping off bread and cookies for the fire crew when she learned she could return to her home in a Santa Cruz mountain town.

"We've lived here for close to 40 years so you got all your mementos and family things, and you don't know if you'll have a home to go back to," Kliegel said. "Second time in 14 months that these guys have saved us."

Kliegel left her house Thursday as flames from the nearby Lockheed Fire shot into the air three miles away. She was among hundreds of residents who were allowed to go home Sunday, days after fleeing from several blazes burning in California's drought-choked areas.

Click to view photos of the wildfires.

Other Bonny Doon residents trickling home along newly reopened roads were relieved to be out of immediate danger, but still apprehensive because containment lines built by firefighters were holding back slightly more than half the blaze.

Crews were unable to fight the blaze by air Sunday because of heavy smoke, but more than 2,100 firefighters made progress on the ground along the western and southern ends of the wildfire, said Paul Provence, a state fire department engineer.

Crews planned to clear the canyon of heavy brush on Monday, he said, adding that "the danger is still real. It still could pop up on us."

Fire officials also warned that the nearby community of Swanton remained threatened by the blaze, which has scorched more than 10 square miles of rugged terrain since Wednesday. A mandatory evacuation order there kept about 400 residents from their homes.

Santa Cruz's Lockheed Fire was among 11 burning in the state, according to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A state of emergency was declared in the county as the other blazes forced evacuations and knocked out power in parts of the state.

The widespread fires were pushing firefighters into rugged terrain to contain the flames and guard against new ignitions.

"Things are so dry out there that it doesn't take much for a spark or an ember to quickly develop into a wildfire," said CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

A fire in Yuba County, north of Sacramento, had burned more than 5 square miles after jumping the Yuba River and moving away from the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Dobbins. About 120 residents who had left their homes were able to return, Berlant said.

That fire, which was ignited by burning feathers from a red-tailed hawk that flew into a power line, was 15 percent contained Sunday, but about 600 homes remained under threat. Voluntary evacuations remain in effect for parts of the community.

The Colgate Powerhouse — the oldest powerhouse in the state — and two others were powered down, along with four major power lines. Together, they produce 300 Megawatts of power for the area.

About 1,385 fire personnel are in the area fighting that blaze, though the steep, rough terrain made their work difficult.

In Alameda County, firefighters contained a grass fire that burned about 19 square miles near Tracy, said Alameda County Fire department spokeswoman Aisha Knowles.

Meanwhile, winds were helping crews beat back a wildfire more than a week old in northern Santa Barbara County that investigators say was started by a camp fire used by marijuana growers.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Joe Pasinato said the fire was 64 percent contained Sunday. The blaze burned more than 135 square miles of timber and brush in and around the Los Padres National Forest about 20 miles east of Santa Maria.

Authorities said residents in most evacuated areas were let back into their homes on Sunday. Twenty-three homes and ranches remained under evacuation orders on the fire's eastern edge.

Back in Davenport, Bob McAuliffe were among residents still being kept from going home. The carpenter said he evacuated Bonny Doon with his wife, chickens, dogs, cats and cockatiels three days ago.

"I'm just anxious to get home," he said.