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Santa Barbara evacuees return, some to ash

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 in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Image: Nanette Pratini, left, and her mother Faye Pratini, 79, hold hands as they return to the rubble of the elder Pratini's home ravaged by a wind-driven wildfire in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Faye Pratini, 79, on Sunday visits her destroyed home in Santa Barbara with her daughter Nanette. Veterans of several wildfires over the years, Faye and Robert Pratini at first refused to evacuate. But when high winds blew the fire toward their home, they changed their minds. Eric Parsons / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Full containment was predicted by Wednesday.

Forecasters predicted breezes would become increasingly stronger by midweek, reaching 20 mph to 30 mph with gusts to 50 mph by Wednesday night.

"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.

The 8,733-acre fire — equal to about 13 1/2 square miles — broke out May 5 and destroyed 77 homes and damaged 22 others, according to county estimates. Sixty outbuildings were also destroyed and 69 others were damaged.

Approximately 145 homes remained evacuated, affecting some 360 people, down from 30,500 people at the fire's height. It has cost $10.8 million to fight and injured 28 firefighters.

Most people returned Sunday to unscathed homes.

Couple returns to debris
"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 lived there since 1960. "You build up a lot of memories, and a lot of attachments."

Started by power tool
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.