Power Tool Might Have Sparked Wildfire - NBC Southern California

Power Tool Might Have Sparked Wildfire



    Power Tool Might Have Sparked Wildfire
    A sign made by residents is seen at an intersection along the route fire crews use to head into the burn area of the Jesusita wildfire in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday, May 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant)

    The wildfire that has scorched 13 square miles and destroyed dozens of homes in the hills above this scenic coastal city was apparently sparked by a power tool being used to clear brush, investigators said.

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    The blaze was 65-percent contained Sunday night. Full containment was expected by Wednesday.

    Fire officials said someone, or possibly a group of people, was clearing vegetation on what appeared to be private land near the trail around the time the fire erupted Tuesday.

    "Any time you use any power tool, there's always a possibility, especially if the conditions are right," said Joe Waterman, the overall fire commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

    Some Santa Barbara County residents recently received annual notices advising them they had until June 1 to clear potentially hazardous brush, county fire Capt. Glenn Fidler said.

    It was not immediately clear whether the blaze originated in an area targeted by such a notice.

    Officials declined to comment further about the type of power tool that may have been used, or if anyone could face charges.

    The fire has destroyed 77 homes, damaged 22 others and forced the evacuation of approximately 30,000 people to safer ground.

    All but approximately 350 evacuees had been allowed to return home Sunday, as firefighters had the blaze 65 percent contained, aided by cooler, more humid weather.

    Relieved to see their homes still standing, grateful residents paid tribute to firefighters by tooting car horns in their honor and posting large thank-you signs on their front lawns.

    More than 4,500 firefighters worked to contain as much of the blaze as they could before the hot, dry "sundowner" winds that pushed flames on homes earlier in the week return, possibly as early as Tuesday.

    Robert Pratini was one of the evacuees. He fled from his hillside during the worst of the wildfire, but he imagined he'd soon be back in the home where he raised his three children.

    On Sunday, though, the 88-year old retired junior high school teacher stood on heaps of blackened debris where his house once was. Tearful relatives hugged each other and retrieved what little they could recover: a painting of a sailboat, a stone fountain, and possibly a dresser.

    "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."

    Pratini's wife Faye, 79, said the couple doubts they will rebuild.

    "It's a lot of riding up and down," she said.

    For thousands of evacuees, Sunday brought an end to the heart-wrenching wait to see if their homes had been spared by the wildfires. Many others were more fortunate than the Pratinis, their picturesque houses unchanged except for the stench of smoke and ash on the window sills.

    "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?"

    Beth and Scott Gordon drove up to their two-story house with their 14-year old Dalmatian named Buster after the evacuation order was lifted Sunday morning. Their home was unscathed but the blaze had charred a large patch of their lawn.

    "I doubt that burned itself out. My sense is the firefighters were protecting us," said Scott Gordon, 49, a movie visual effects supervisor. "I feel pretty lucky."

    The benignly named Jesusita Fire was a slumbering day-old brush fire on rugged slopes above the city when a sundowner hit at midafternoon Wednesday, hurling towering flames into homes and spitting embers into more distant neighborhoods.

    The city's location on the state's central coast gives it some of the best weather in the world, with temperatures routinely topping out in the 70s, and views of the Pacific Ocean. Now with a population of about 90,000, it dates to the Spanish colonial era of California and a Roman Catholic mission established in the 1780s is a major tourist attraction.

    But the geography that gives it beauty and a serene atmosphere also brings danger.

    In November, a wind-driven fire burned 200 houses in Santa Barbara and Montecito, including the home of actor Christopher Lloyd. Winfrey's estate escaped, along with the home of actor Rob Lowe, among many celebrities who have area homes. 

    Evacuation Orders

    For the current evacuation orders, visit http://www.countyofsb.org/ceo/dept0.aspx, and check out the embedded Google Map at the bottom of this story.

    Schools Closed

    Check Santa Barbara County's website for school closings.

    Santa Barbara County Posts Map Online

    Evacuation and closure information is available on Google Maps. The information is being updated by Santa Barbara County:

    View Jesusita Fire - Santa Barbara in a larger map