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Firefighters make significant progress in wildfires burning across Southern California

Firefighters make significant progress in wildfires burning across Southern California
Eric Durtschi searches through the rubble for personal belongings after his rental home was destroyed by wildfire in Goleta. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Firefighters in Santa Barbara County continued mop-up operations Sunday morning after battling a wildfire that destroyed about 20 structures, prompting hundreds of evacuations in Goleta over the weekend amid a brutal heat wave.

The Holiday fire is 80% contained, with full containment expected by Wednesday, said Mike Eliason, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. He said 10 homes were destroyed and three damaged; another nine structures were destroyed.

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On Sunday morning, firefighters canvassed Goleta’s hillside neighborhoods with shovels, looking for remaining hot spots. The area no longer smelled heavily of smoke.

“It’s a thankless part of the job, but it’s the most necessary so it doesn’t get rekindled,” Eliason said, adding that about 130 firefighters remained on duty.

(Los Angeles Times)

The 100-acre Holiday fire was perhaps the most destructive of several that broke out across Southern California amid oppressive heat that set records all weekend. Temperatures on Sunday were slightly cooler, ranging from the high 70s along the coast, to the low 90s in downtown Los Angeles and triple-digit temperatures in some inland areas.

More gradual cooling is expected throughout the region on Monday.

When the Holiday fire broke out after 8 p.m. Friday, the temperature in Goleta was still 100 degrees. Then the sundowner winds picked up, a scenario that over the decades has spread many of Santa Barbara County’s most destructive fires.

The blaze moved so fast Friday night that some residents struggled to get out of the hillside community, and 911 lines were jammed with calls.

When John Davis fled his home, it was raining embers. After hosing down his roof and his neighbor’s, Davis, 53, hopped in his truck with his 21-year-old son and three friends. As they left about 9 p.m., they watched fences and trees light up around them.

“All of a sudden it was like a fireworks show,” Davis said. “I said, ‘Boys, we gotta go.’”

That night, his family stayed at a motel in town. They had brought the essentials: their dog, cat, photo albums and a few handfuls of clothes.

But not knowing whether his house was still standing was too much for Davis to bear. He decided to investigate.

On Saturday morning, he hiked three miles back to his hillside neighborhood. Authorities weren’t letting residents drive back into the area un-escorted.

Davis found his home of 24 years unscathed.

“I have happy tears,” he said Sunday, wiping his eyes.

His backyard was charred. The pump and filter for his pool had melted away. The house smelled like smoke, but nothing major was damaged.

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The family had evacuated twice before, most recently during the Gap fire of 2008. He knew the signs to look for: triple-digit heat and rushing winds.

“I’ve been through fires before, but this was the worst,” he said. “It was fast and furious.”

More than 2,500 residents were initially evacuated, but most have since been allowed to return home. Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson commended residents for quickly evacuating.

“I’m convinced with that quickly advancing flame front, we would have had fatalities” Friday night, he said.

Santa Barbara has a long history of natural disasters, particularly brush fires. But the last year has been staggering.

In December, the Thomas fire, the largest on record in California, ripped through Montecito, Carpinteria and other coastal cities, destroying more than 1,000 structures.

In January, mudslides in the same area killed 21 people and destroyed more than 100 homes. The mudslides alone resulted in property damage claims of more than $421 million.

The ever-present threats to homes and lives and the frightening evacuation alerts are becoming all too familiar, said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf, who lost her home during the Painted Cave fire of 1990. She’s had to evacuate twice since.

“Unfortunately it is an occurrence that we have become very used to,” she said. “But that doesn’t take away from the trauma and the fear that people experience.”

Meanwhile, firefighters in San Bernardino County continued to battle the 1,100-acre Valley fire, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents in the Forest Falls community. On Sunday morning, the fire remained 5% contained.

No homes have been damaged, but evacuation orders remain in effect.

Officials are concerned about possible landslides on Highway 38 as thunderstorms that moved through the mountains at midday Saturday could have undermined hillsides already weakened by the fire, said Uriah Hernandez, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

“The fire weakens the terrain, because all the vegetation is gone, and the rain doesn’t help,” Hernandez said. “We want to make sure the area is secure before we let people back in. “

Flames were moving north and east, pushing higher into the steep terrain of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. At this point, no homes have been destroyed, said Cathey Mattingly, public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

There were at least four fires in San Diego County, including the West fire, which hit the Alpine area and initially forced 2,400 to evacuate. The fire destroyed 55 structures and scorched more than 500 acres. Two firefighters were hospitalized, one with heat-related injuries and one with slight burns to his face.

By Sunday afternoon, the fire was 92% contained and all evacuation orders had been lifted, officials said. The temperature in Alpine reached 112 degrees Friday and 104 degrees Saturday. Temperatures hovered in the mid- to high-90s on Sunday.

Three other fires were burning Sunday on Camp Pendleton in North County and have scorched a combined 1,600 acres, according to Marine base officials. But firefighters have gotten the upper-hand on the fires and residents who were forced to evacuate have been allowed to return home.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with new information about the fires burning in San Diego County.

2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with new information about the fire in San Bernardino County.

1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Goleta resident John Davis.

12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from Santa Barbara County fire officials.

This article was originally posted at 9:50 a.m.

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