* Fire 30 percent contained as weather improves
* More than half of 30,500 evacuees allowed to return home
(Updates with evacuees allowed to return, adds quotes)
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. May 9 Some 15,000
people, more than half of those evacuated from an area near
Santa Barbara, California, were allowed back home on Saturday
as firefighters made progress against a wildfire that has raged
for five days.
Of the 30,500 people originally forced to leave, about
14,735 remained under mandatory evacuation as of Saturday
afternoon, said Harry Hagen, a spokesman for Santa Barbara
County's emergency operations center.
The fire has destroyed 80 homes and blackened more than
8,600 acres (3,480 hectares) in the foothills above the
picturesque seaside city.
Hagen said about 30 percent of the fire had been contained,
up from only 10 percent on Friday, with the help of better
Abe Peck, professor emeritus for Northwestern University,
moved to Santa Barbara last year from Evanston, Illinois, and
said this was his third fire and second evacuation since his
"I was playing poker on Thursday night and suddenly the
fire jumped the highway. Little by little my poker buddies
started getting calls to say it was time to go," Peck
"We're well drilled by now. We took file cabinets, 2009 tax
documents, laptops, a small suitcase, house stuff, photos and
our two dogs and went to friend's house southeast of here,"
said Peck, who came home on Saturday to find everything
"The single biggest thing about all this is the sense of
community from the firefighters and cops to waitresses and
residents. I tried to volunteer in the food bank and they
already had 50 volunteers. The spirit of the town is fantastic,
even though people feel beaten down from multiple fires," he
One of the biggest challenges in battling the so-called
Jesusita fire has been hot, unpredictable "sundowner" winds
that pick up at nightfall and fan the flames through steep
canyons into neighborhoods of multimillion-dollar homes.
"The humidity's up and they (firefighters) can really take
advantage of the marine layer today. The winds didn't pick up
last night as significantly as had been predicted," Hagen
"Prior to today, it was a defensive effort and it was all
reactionary. As of today, it's an offensive effort and
firefighters are now chasing the fire," Hagen said.
County officials expect the fire to be contained by the
middle of next week.
About 4,222 firefighting personnel were on scene, using
nearly 500 fire engines, 11 air tankers and 13 helicopters.
No civilian casualties have been reported so far but the
blaze has injured 13 firefighters, with at least three of them
hospitalized for burns and smoke inhalation.
(Writing by Sue Zeidler; Editing by Eric Walsh)