Image: Robert Pratini
Eric Parsons  /  AP
Robert Pratini, 88, points to his burned avocado trees outside his destroyed home in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Sunday.
updated 5/10/2009 5:49:58 PM ET 2009-05-10T21:49:58

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 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 31, 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.

Trying to contain the blaze
The fire also has damaged 47 homes and forced about 30,000 people to flee. All but about 350 evacuees were allowed to return home Sunday 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 on Sunday, more than 4,500 firefighters worked feverishly to contain as much of the blaze as they could before the hot, dry winds that pushed flames on homes earlier in the week return, possibly as early as Monday night.

"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 this time 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 five-by-seven-foot concrete bunker he built to store important documents.

Fire-resistant plantings did well
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 home that has good defensible space.

"We don't get killed for vegetation. We're not in that business," said Sid Porrazzo, a Santa Barbara County fire captain working out of a station near Mission Canyon. "We're in the rescue and life safety business."

In recent years, many residents have gotten rid of more volatile plant life, replacing it with fire-resistant gardens or just clearing it out entirely.

Only the juniper tree burned
Susan Robeck, 57, was thrilled to return to her hilltop home overlooking an avocado grove Saturday and find everything intact — except a charred swath of land where a juniper tree once stood.

The retired technical writer said she remembered a fire official told her to remove the tree a few years ago — the only blemish on her otherwise fire-resistant garden of white pebbles and desert plants that retain water.

Others, like 44-year-old resident Laura Smith, built fire safety into the construction of the homes themselves. Smith built her home with boxed eaves and a stucco exterior a decade ago.

"Our house is as-fireproof-as-you-can-get construction," said Smith.

After losing his home in a previous blaze, Gordon Sichi said he has invested in a new roof and plans to pave his deck, put screens on his gutters and switch the wooden garage door for a metal one — a total of at least $60,000 in improvements.

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, where many houses can't be seen from the main roads.

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 firefighter's worst nightmare," he said.

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

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