Image: Air tanker dumps retardant on fire
Eric Parsons  /  AP
An air tanker drops retardant material on the Santa Barbara, Calif., wildfire on Saturday. Tankers contracted by the U.S. Forest Service are at the core of a controversy over contracting policy.
updated 5/14/2009 1:30:42 PM ET 2009-05-14T17:30:42

Firefighters are keeping an anxious eye on wind gusts that could re-ignite embers from a Southern California wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes last week.

The National Weather Service has issued a wind warning through midday Thursday and says gusts could reach 65 mph in canyons and mountain passes.

Emergency operations spokesman Harry Hagen says strong gusts could threaten 45 properties in hills northeast of Santa Barbara. About 100 residents have not been allowed to return to their homes there.

Officials said the wildfire that blackened more than 13 square miles last week was 90 percent contained after days of cool, humid weather.

The fire began May 5 and stiff wind fanned the flames through dry brush in the scenic hills above Santa Barbara.

The 8,700-acre fire destroyed 78 homes and damaged 22 others, fire officials said, with firefighting costs totaling more than $12.2 million.

The fire injured 29 firefighters. One firefighter is still hospitalized after undergoing surgery for burns on Tuesday.

Aircraft controversy
In Washington, meanwhile, the head of the U.S. Forest Service said she is reluctant to overturn a policy that caused tanker planes to fly extra distances while fighting the wildfire because the agency did not yet have a contract in place to use a nearby airport.

The tankers had to fly an additional 120 miles round trip to obtain supplies — delaying response to the fire, which burned 100 homes in Santa Barbara, forced more than 30,000 people to evacuate and torched more than 13 square miles.

Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said the agency will review the specifics of the Santa Barbara blaze, but added that she would not want the agency to have year-round contracts with private companies to help fight wildfires.

"A permanent fire season? I hope we never get to that," she told The Associated Press.

Setting up agreements to provide retardant and other supplies "is an expense of public money. We want to be mindful before we commit to anything," Kimbell said.

'Season keeps expanding'
At the same time, she acknowledged that global warming and other factors have led to longer fire seasons that now stretch well beyond mid-May to November.

"Fire season keeps expanding on both ends," Kimbell said, adding that the length of the fire season is a key factor as officials set up contracts with private companies and airports to assist the government in what has become a billion-dollar-a-year battle against wildfires.

"We try to be prepared ... should events occur, and we use the best data we have, but you'll never have all the answers," particularly when most contracts are signed a year in advance, Kimbell said.

Three aircraft were able to resupply once at an airfield in Santa Maria, Calif., 60 miles north of the blaze, but they were later diverted to another airport about 120 miles away after officials realized a supply contract wasn't in place at the Santa Maria airport.

State and federal officials say it's impossible to know what effect the airport confusion had on efforts to stamp out the Santa Barbara blaze, but said that being able to land at Santa Maria would have saved time.

Planes made multiple trips to Porterville, Calif., last week before the Santa Maria airfield was opened to the aircraft on May 6, cutting the length of resupply missions in half. The Forest Service had not completed a contract, which usually runs from May 15 to Nov. 15, with two service providers at the airport, said spokesman Jason Kirchner.

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

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