Some California wildfire evacuees allowed home

SANTA BARBARA, California Sat May 9, 2009 6:58pm EDT

1 of 5. Firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection monitor a huge plume of smoke rising from Los Padres National Forest on the northeastern flank of the Jesusita fire above Montecito, California, May 8, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Rafael Agustin Delgado

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SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) - Some 15,000 people, more than half of those 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 8,600 acres in the foothills above the picturesque seaside city.

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

Abe Peck, professor emeritus for Northwestern University, moved to Santa Barbara last year from Evanston, Illinois, and said this was his third fire and second evacuation since his move.

"I was playing poker on Thursday night and suddenly the fire jumped the highway. Little by little my poker buddies started getting calls to say it was time to go," Peck recalled.

"We're well drilled by now. We took file cabinets, 2009 tax documents, laptops, a small suitcase, house stuff, photos and our two dogs and went to friend's house southeast of here," said Peck, who came home on Saturday to find everything intact.

"The single biggest thing about all this is the sense of community from the firefighters and cops to waitresses and residents. I tried to volunteer in the food bank and they already had 50 volunteers. The spirit of the town is fantastic, even though people feel beaten down from multiple fires," he said.

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," 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," 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.

(Writing by Sue Zeidler; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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