Calif. firefighters credit residents for limited losses
Santa Barbara evacuees begin returning home
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Relieved to see their ash-covered houses still intact, grateful homeowners are paying tribute to firefighters by tooting car horns and posting large thank-you signs on their front lawns.
The firefighters, who began to get the upper hand this weekend on a fierce blaze that destroyed dozens of homes, were just as quick to share the credit.
They say that if residents of the hillside homes ringing Santa Barbara hadn't been aggressive in clearing brush and fire-prone plants from their property, hundreds of homes, not just 77, could have been lost.
"More homes would have burned had they not done their defensible space work," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said.
Yet officials said the fire was apparently sparked by a power tool being used to clear brush, investigators said yesterday. They said someone, or possibly a group of people, was clearing vegetation on what appeared to be private land around the time the fire erupted Tuesday.
The fire forced about 30,000 people to flee. All but about 350 evacuees were allowed to return home yesterday, as firefighters had the blaze 55 percent contained.
The remaining evacuees live in remote canyon areas closest to the flames.
Amid cooler weather conditions in Santa Barbara yesterday, more than 4,500 firefighters worked feverishly to contain as much of the blaze as they could before the hot, dry winds return.
"We have a window of opportunity right now to get our lines tied in and to get hot spots mopped up as good as possible, because the next couple of days the wind is going to resurface again and we need to be prepared," said Kelley Gouette, deputy incident commander for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Residents and firefighters said being prepared made a big difference over what happened in 1990, when a blaze took out 500 homes.
Richard Martin, a 73-year-old retired University of California at Santa Barbara chemistry professor, rode out the worst of this blaze in a 5-by-7-foot concrete bunker he built to store important documents.
Martin and his wife, Penny, ducked in and out of the bunker to battle spot fires on the oak trees surrounding their four-level home. He credited rooftop sprinklers and planting low fire resistant plants around the edge of his home with its survival.
"All the trees, the leaves, are all dead because they've been scorched," Martin said. "But those plants haven't been scorched. They look normal."
In 2005, California extended the required clearance around homes in an effort to bolster the defensible space needed to protect a house from a wildfire and keep firefighters safe while working.
In Santa Barbara County, officials can clear brush from unkempt property and charge homeowners for doing so.
Franklin said they usually need to enforce that regulation on no more than a couple of homes a year. Firefighters say they are more likely to hunker down and try to save a house that has good defensible space.
In recent years, many residents have gotten rid of more volatile plant life, replacing it with fire-resistant gardens or clearing it out entirely.
But some residents are reluctant to hack down the tree branches that shade their homes and give them privacy in the rolling canyons above the city's downtown.
In the Painted Cave community tucked away in winding canyons west of the city, most homes are covered with branches and shrouded in trees, said Barry Flores, a Sacramento fire battalion chief working on the western front of the blaze.
"It's a firefighters worst nightmare," he said.