Weather puts wet blanket on destructive Souther California fire |

Weather puts wet blanket on destructive Souther California fire

SANTA BARBARA ” A blanket of damp, cool ocean air draped the coast Sunday morning, keeping a lid on a destructive wildfire and allowing some of the thousands of evacuees to return and see if their homes had survived.

Returnees were warned they should remain alert in case conditions worsen again, but the hot, dry wind that stoked the blaze was not expected to return for at least another day.

The blaze that charred an area of more than 13 square miles was 40 percent contained late Saturday after the moist air flowed in from the Pacific Ocean, blocking the dry, daily wind known as the “sundowner.”

By Sunday morning, the temperature at Santa Barbara was just 56 degrees and humidity was 86 percent, the National Weather Service said. Sunday’s forecast was for a high of just 65 to 75, some 20 degrees cooler than the weather that prevailed last week.

Richard Abrams, spokesman for Santa Barbara emergency operations center, said the dramatically cooler, damper weather allowed firefighters to make steady progress through the night on constructing a containment line to encircle the fire and prevent flames from spreading.

“It’s a stable situation on the line,” he said Sunday morning. “They’re filling in that line.”

The weather service had dropped its fire weather warnings Saturday and predicted that clouds and fog would continue through Monday morning. It said the sundowner wind blowing down from the Santa Ynez range wouldn’t returned before Monday night, and then only weakly to moderately.

Fire officials said the blaze destroyed 31 homes and two detached garages, and damaged 47 other homes, saying an earlier estimate that 80 buildings were destroyed was incorrect.

Cheers erupted at an evacuation center when Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announced Saturday that mandatory evacuation orders for most areas were being downgraded to evacuation warnings, meaning residents could return but would have to remain alert.

“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.”

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.

The blaze isn’t expected to be fully contained until Wednesday.

Among the first to return were Jonathan Kenny, 44, and his wife, Susan Kim, 42, who found their home covered with ash but still standing near blackened hillsides.

“I feel like we dodged a bullet on this one,” said Kenny, who watered plants and fed goldfish in a backyard pond.

But a short distance away up a narrow canyon road, homes were gutted and cars were burned-out wrecks.

More than 30,000 people had been under mandatory evacuation orders since the fire erupted Tuesday just above Santa Barbara on the face of the 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.

The fire was driven into outlying residential areas Wednesday by the notorious sundowner wind, which sweeps down the face of the mountains late in the day. The wind returned and fanned the flames again late Thursday and into early Friday.

After that gusty onslaught, the fire was active along a five-mile-long front Friday just above Santa Barbara, west toward neighboring Goleta and east toward the community of Montecito.

However, the sundowner failed to materialize Friday night, and instead the normal flow of air from the Pacific Ocean delivered the dense, moist marine layer that didn’t let the sun peek through until nearly midday.

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,” Hall said as he had ash cleaned off his daughter’s car at a car wash.

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