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 over half of the those residents were back in their homes, Santa Barbara County sheriff's Commander Darin Fotheringham said.
Notorious local winds known as "sundowners" sweeping from inland and down the face of the mountains drove the fire into outlying neighborhoods Wednesday afternoon, causing most of the destruction, and again late Thursday and early Friday.
A predicted sundowner failed to materialize Friday night, and instead the normal flow of air from the Pacific Ocean pushed ashore a dense, moist marine layer that didn't let the sun peek through until nearly midday. Officials had said an onshore flow would raise humidity levels and blow the fire away from developed areas on the foothills.
The National Weather Service on Saturday dropped fire weather warnings and predicted that overnight clouds and fog would continue through Monday morning before a return of a weak-to-moderate sundowners in the Santa Ynez range Monday night and into midweek.
Firefighters were cautious but said the blaze that had covered more than 13 square miles was 30 percent contained. Water-dropping helicopters continued to shuttle between reservoirs and hot spots but flames were not apparent and the huge plumes of smoke that loomed over the city for days had vanished.
"It's easy on a day like today to look around and go, 'Wow, you know, we've got this thing beat," Joe Waterman, the overall fire commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Saturday evening. "We don't have this thing beat yet."
The blaze was expected to be fully contained by Wednesday. On Friday, it had been active along a five-mile front just above Santa Barbara, west toward neighboring Goleta and east toward the community of Montecito.
Brown said the evacuations were being lifted in phases to avoid traffic jams from returning residents.
"We hope to get everyone back as soon as possible, but it's nice to be able to deliver some good news to you, for a change." the sheriff said.
Martha Marsango, an 87-year-old widow, didn't wait for evacuation orders to lift. She said she made her way back home Friday, adding that she knew she "could replace everything that was in it, but it is still my home."
Resident Eric Hall, 59, said he believed the worst was over when he felt the mist sweep in off the ocean.
"The weather is cooperating," said Hall, who was having ash cleaned off his daughter's car at a car wash.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited evacuees housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus before the sheriff's announcement.
"I think one woman came up to me and said 'I like it here much better than my home because here finally I'm getting served other than me always having to provide for the family.' So there's a great sense of humor here," Schwarzenegger said.
Actor Rob Lowe, an area resident, said the fire was scary but he shared the governor's sentiment about how residents have dealt with it.
"This kind of a fire was touch-and-go for a long time," he said. "I've got a lot of friends who have been evacuated. We're sheltering people at our house. The community just pulled together."