GOLETA CALIF. - Most of the thousands of people who fled a raging California wildfire in the mountains north of Santa Barbara were told they could return home Tuesday as an approaching storm offered hope the flames would be doused.
About 4,000 of the nearly 5,500 evacuees were affected when authorities reduced the size of the evacuation zone.
The blaze had blackened more than 6.5 square miles (16.8 square kilometers) of the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains, but most of that acreage was scorched in its first hours Monday.
Fire commanders described a fierce battle that saved homes as the blaze consumed brush in an area that hadn't burned in 29 years.
“We've had winds move up slope, down slope, across the slope,” Santa Barbara County fire Battalion Chief Anthony Stornetta said.
Helicopters dropped water on the fire during the night, and daylight allowed air tankers to drop long strips of fire retardant to box in the flames.
The fire began in Los Padres National Forest as winds gusted to 30 mph (48 kph) and higher.
Miryam Garcia, 21, and her mother, Norma Ramos, 47, fled their home as flames approached.
“I was just kind of praying that it didn't get to our house,” Garcia said.
She and her mother stayed overnight with friends and then went to a Red Cross shelter at a community center in Goleta, west of Santa Barbara.
“Overwhelmed, not knowing what to do,” Garcia said.
Red Cross official Tony Briggs said 34 people stayed overnight at the shelter, where face masks were being handed out.
It wasn't clear whether the shelter would still be needed on Thanksgiving, but Briggs promised to “do our very best to make this as good as we possibly can.”
Firefighters were told the area had not received any rain in 180 days and vegetation was ready to burn.
They were cautioned that roads into the rugged area may be too narrow for their engines, and that many residents had not left.
Fire officials said as much as an inch of rain was expected to hit the area by midnight.
The possible arrival of rain also posed hazards, ranging from shifting winds to debris flows from steep mountainsides.
The dangerous cycle of fire and flood is a raw memory for many people in the region.
In January 2018, a downpour on burned slopes just east of Santa Barbara unleashed massive debris flows that devastated Montecito, killing 23 people and destroying homes.
A 1990 wildfire in the same area destroyed more than 400 homes.