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Residents return as evacuation order lifted

THOUSANDS of residents were back home as a blanket of cool, moist air flowing in from the Pacific Ocean tamed a wind-driven wildfire that burned dozens of homes along the outskirts of Santa Barbara, California, during the week.

Cheers erupted at an evacuation center on Saturday when US 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 near blackened hillsides that showed 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, that's good," 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 those residents were back in their homes, Santa Barbara County sheriff's Commander Darin Fotheringham said.

Fire officials also revised their count of burnt houses, saying the blaze had destroyed 31 homes and two detached garages, and damaged another 47 homes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had incorrectly reported on its Website earlier that 80 structures were destroyed after the count of destroyed and damaged structures was mistakenly combined.

Notorious local winds known as "sundowners" sweeping from inland and down the face of the mountains drove the fire into outlying neighborhoods on Wednesday afternoon, causing most of the destruction, and again late on Thursday and early on Friday.

Firefighters were cautious but said the blaze that had covered more than 34 square kilometers was 40 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.


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