10 May 2009

Thousands return home as California fire 30% contained

4:20 pm on 10 May 2009

More than half of the 30,500 people evacuated from an area near Santa Barbara, California, were allowed back home on Saturday as firefighters made progress against a wildfire that has raged for five days.

Of the 30,500 people originally forced to leave, about 14,735 remained under mandatory evacuation as of Saturday afternoon, said Harry Hagen, a spokesman for Santa Barbara County's emergency operations center.

The fire has destroyed 80 homes and blackened more than 3,480 hectares in the foothills above the city.

Mr Hagen said about 30% of the fire had been contained, up from only 10% on Friday, with the help of better weather conditions.

One of the biggest challenges in battling the so-called Jesusita fire has been hot, unpredictable "sundowner" winds that pick up at nightfall and fan the flames through steep canyons into neighborhoods of multimillion-dollar homes.

"The humidity's up and they (firefighters) can really take advantage of the marine layer today. The winds didn't pick up last night as significantly as had been predicted," Mr Hagen said.

"Prior to today, it was a defensive effort and it was all reactionary. As of today, it's an offensive effort and firefighters are now chasing the fire," Mr Hagen said.

County officials expect the fire to be contained by the middle of next week.

About 4,222 firefighting personnel were on scene, using nearly 500 fire engines, 11 air tankers and 13 helicopters.

No civilian casualties have been reported so far but the blaze has injured 13 firefighters, with at least three of them hospitalized for burns and smoke inhalation.

California is frequently hit by scorching wildfires due to its dry climate, Santa Ana winds and recent housing booms that have seen home construction spread rapidly into rural and densely forested areas.

In 2007, California suffered devastation from wildfires among the worst in its history that left eight people dead, gutted 2,000 homes and displaced 640,000 people.