- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — 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 Sunday.

Fire officials said someone, or possibly a group, 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 that they had until June 1 to clear potentially hazardous brush, county fire Capt. Glenn Fidler said.

It was not 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 whether anyone could face charges.

Relieved to see their ash-covered houses still intact, grateful homeowners are paying tribute to firefighters by tooting car horns and posting large thank-you signs on their front lawns.

The firefighters, who began to get the upper hand this past weekend on a fierce blaze that destroyed dozens of homes, were just as quick to share the credit.

They said that if residents of the hillside homes ringing Santa Barbara hadn’t been aggressive in clearing brush and fire-prone plants from their property, hundreds of homes, not just 31, could have been lost.

“More homes would have burned had they not done their defensible space work,” Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said.

The fire also has damaged 47 homes and forced about 30,000 people to flee. All but about 350 evacuees were allowed to return home Sunday as firefighters had the blaze 55 percent contained. The remaining evacuees live in remote canyon areas closest to the flames.

Amid cooler weather conditions in Santa Barbara on Sunday, more than 4,500 firefighters worked feverishly to contain as much of the blaze as they could before the hot, dry winds that pushed flames on homes last week return, possibly as early as Monday night.

Residents and firefighters said being prepared this time made a big difference compared with what happened in 1990, when a blaze took out 500 homes.

In 2005, California extended the required clearance around homes in an effort to bolster the defensible space needed to protect a house from a wildfire and keep firefighters safe while working. In Santa Barbara County, officials can clear brush from unkempt property and charge homeowners for doing so.

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