Santa Barbarans woke up Saturday morning to cool air and foggy cloud cover today, a welcome break from the intense heat and high winds that have been driving the Jesusita Fire in the hills above the city since Tuesday, May 5.
Shortly before 11 a.m., mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for many areas south of Foothill Road, allowing people to begin returning to their homes, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Reports from the foothills were equally encouraging this morning, and fire officials have now changed their strategy. “We’re going from the defensive to offensive,” said Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio. “We’re going to chase the fire, not have the fire chase us.”
The cloud cover is expected to clear, but still, winds are diminishing, temperatures are getting lower, and humidity is getting higher. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are up, making water and retardant drops which will continue throughout the day. Also returning is the impressive and much talked about DC-10, which made three daytime drops yesterday. Helicopters with the ability to fly at night did so on Friday, when officials saw the window of opportunity to reduce the Jesusita Fire’s consumption of fuel.
Fire officials are now calling the 8,700-acre fire 30 percent contained, with that number expected to go up throughout the day. The Jesusita Fire could possibly be fully contained by Wednesday.
Despite all the good news from last night and the positive prognosis for what’s ahead, officials are cautious of what DiMizio called a “sleeping giant,” particularly on the eastern flank. “We won’t be out of the woods until this thing is completely diminished,” said Santa Barbara County Deputy Fire Chief Chris Hahn.
While the fire is sitting in the western fork of the Cold Spring drainage, and there is a possibility that it could move toward Montecito, it did not appear to be going anywhere on Saturday morning and firefighters were making steady progress toward containing it. Work was still proceeding on the western flank as well.
Officials estimate that a total of 80 homes have been damaged or destroyed so far.
In burned neighborhoods, hot spots are still being put out, and hand crews and engines are “getting the area safe” for people to repopulate, said CalFire spokesperson Mike Carr. Officials wouldn’t speculate, however, on when that would be.
The evacuation effort represents the largest law enforcement mutual aid deployment in the history of Santa Barbara County, even outpacing the riots in Isla Vista years ago.
One of the three Ventura County firefighters previously taken to the Sherman Oaks Burn Center has been released. Most of the other 10 injuries sustained during the fire have been relatively minor.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was expected to stop by the area once again on Saturday morning, this time to visit the evacuees at the Red Cross shelter set up at UCSB.
Media trucks, laundry facilities, food lines, tents, staging areas, and, of course, fire engines have transformed Earl Warren Showgrounds into a small city for the roughly 4,000 personnel working the fire. From Tuesday on, Earl Warren has slowly bulged bigger and bigger until now not everyone can even fit on the premises. Vehicles are being parked on Calle Real, firefighters are setting up at nearby Adams Elementary School, and law enforcement personnel from around the state are convening in the La Cumbre Shopping Center parking lot.