Santa Barbara Evacuees Return Home After Wildfire - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Santa Barbara Evacuees Return Home After Wildfire

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Robert Pratini, 88, points to his burned avocado trees outside his destroyed home in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Sunday, May 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Parsons) Robert Pratini, 88, points to his burned avocado trees outside his destroyed home in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Sunday, May 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Parsons)
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) -- Firefighters took advantage of cool, damp weather Monday as they rushed to wipe out the last remnants of a wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes, racing against an expected return of windy weather.

The 13-square-mile blaze was 70 percent surrounded. Nearly all evacuees had returned to homes they fled when wind blowing down the face of the steep Santa Ynez Mountains blew towering flames into residential areas.

The area was enveloped Monday by another round of the early morning fog that started blanketing the fire during the weekend, but the National Weather Service said the fog would burn off later in the day. Wind up to 25 mph was forecast for evening, with stronger gusts below passes and canyons.

"We're optimistic. We're trying to button this up before the weather changes," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said Monday.

Firefighters were mainly dousing hot spots and carving containment lines in wilderness areas north of the city in Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Sarah Gibson said.

"There is no open flame," Gibson said.

At least 77 homes had been destroyed since the fire broke out May 5. It has damaged 22 others, cost $10.8 million to fight, injured 28 firefighters and forced the evacuation of approximately 30,000 people to safer ground.

By early Monday, only about 370 people remained evacuated from 145 homes, mostly in an area still filled with smoke and where narrow roads were busy with utility crews repairing power and telephone service, Sadecki said.

Most people returned Sunday to unscathed homes.

"We were very, very, very lucky, and we always keep knocking on wood," said Marty Conoley, 57, rapping on a coffee table in his undamaged home. "Who would have thunk a fire at this time of year?"

Others weren't as lucky. Robert Pratini, an 88-year old retired teacher, stood with relatives on heaps of blackened debris where his hillside house once stood. His wife Faye, 79, said they doubt they will rebuild.

"You always have a glimmer of optimism," said Pratini, who had lived there since 1960. "You build up a lot of memories, and a lot of attachments."

Officials said Sunday the blaze was apparently was started by someone using a power tool to clear brush last Tuesday on private land near the Jesusita Trail. They asked the public for help in identifying the tool user.

Officials declined to comment further about the type of power tool that may have been used, or if anyone could face charges.

During the weekend, fire officials praised residents for aggressively cutting back brush that could have fueled the blaze.

"More homes would have burned had they not done their defensible space work," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said.

© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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