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Published: Saturday, 5/9/2009

Morning fog brings relief for Calif. fire crews


SANTA BARBARA, Calif. A cool sea breeze and thick morning fog provided some relief Saturday for crews battling the wildfire that has destroyed scores of homes along the California coast and forced thousands to evacuate.

There was still a threat that dry inland wind could return to stoke the flames again.

The fog rolled in from the ocean early Saturday and blanketed the lower elevation areas of the fire.

"It wasn't expected," said Sarah Gibson, Santa Barbara county public information officer. "It was a nice, thick, wet flow."

However, the fog was expected to burn off by midmorning, and the National Weather Service issued a wind advisory warning that wind could gust to 20 to 25 mph in the Santa Ynez mountain range.

Humidity is expected to remain low in the higher slopes although not as low as in previous days.

"It's better than before but it's still of concern," Gibson said.

More than 30,000 people have left the area and authorities urged 23,000 others to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

The blaze was only 10 percent contained as of Friday night, after charring more than 13 square miles and destroying about 80 homes as it menaced this celebrity enclave and other coastal towns.

The blaze has been fanned by the area's "Sundowners," fierce local wind that sweeps down the mountain slopes from north to south and out to sea.

"When the air is coming off of the ocean the humidity is fairly high and it pushes the fire back away from the community," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said. "But the (sundowner) prediction is still there. The winds could surface, change back around and blow the fire back downhill."

The weather service said the sharp north-to-south pressure gradient creating the wind was expected to weaken but remain strong enough to produce gusts through Saturday, and possibly until Sunday morning.

The fire was raging along a five-mile-long front above normally serene coastal communities.

"There will be a point in the incident when I will have cautious optimism but I'm not there yet," Joe Waterman, the overall fire commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Friday.

About 80 homes have been destroyed in neighborhoods on ridges and in canyons that rise up the foothills above the north edge of Santa Barbara.

The city and adjacent communities are pinched between the coast on the south and the rugged mountains on the north, putting them in the path of the sundowner wind.

The Santa Barbara area has long been a favorite of celebrities. Oprah Winfrey has an estate in Montecito, where Charlie Chaplin's old seaside escape, the Montecito Inn, has stood since 1928. A ranch in the mountains that Ronald and Nancy Reagan bought became his Western retreat during his presidency.

Some 3,500 firefighters were on the scene along with 428 engines, 14 air tankers and 15 helicopters. A DC-10 jumbo jet tanker capable of dumping huge loads of retardant began making runs on the fire Friday afternoon.

Officials said 11 firefighters had been injured to date, including three who were burned in a firestorm Wednesday. They were reported in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center.

The cause of the blaze, which broke out Tuesday, remained under investigation.

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