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'I have happy tears,' Goleta resident says after finding his home survived destructive wildfire

'I have happy tears,' Goleta resident says after finding his home survived destructive wildfire
In this July 6 photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters put water on flames at a Goleta home. With the Holiday fire 85% contained, one resident, John Davis, returned to find his house (not pictured) was still standing. (Mike Eliason / Associated Press)

When John Davis and his family fled their hillside home in Goleta, 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 and prepared their escape. As they left about 9 p.m. Friday, they watched fences and trees light up around them.

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“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. On Saturday morning, he hiked three miles back to his hillside neighborhood.

Davis found his home of 24 years unscathed.

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

The Holiday fire in Goleta is 85% 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; an additional nine structures were destroyed.

On Sunday, 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.

The 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 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 he returned to his home on Saturday, Davis said he discovered his backyard was charred. The pump and filter for his pool had melted away. The house smelled like smoke, but nothing major was damaged.

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.

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

Meanwhile, firefighters in San Bernardino County continue to battle the 1,341-acre Valley fire, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents in the Forest Falls community. The fire is 13% contained.

No homes have been damaged and Forest Falls evacuations were lifted for residents on Sunday night.

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.

Firefighters are also battling the 35,250-acre Klamathon fire in Siskiyou County, which is 30% contained. Eighty-one structures have been destroyed and 810 structures are threatened.

There were at least four fires in San Diego County, including the West fire, which hit the Alpine area and initially forced 2,400 residents 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.

7:45 a.m.: This article was updated with new numbers on acreage and containment.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.

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