Weather conditions that at least temporarily calmed allowed firefighters to gain ground early Wednesday on a pair of wildfires that forced thousands of residents to leave their homes.
Evacuation orders were lifted for all of the more than 20,000 residents in and around San Diego on Tuesday night just a few hours after they were called, and all but a handful of those in 1,200 homes and businesses told to evacuate in Santa Barbara County had been allowed to return.
The 1,550-acre San Diego-area blaze was 25 percent contained and it was hoped that number would increase to 50 percent by day's end, said San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Lee Swanson.
The Santa Barbara County blaze, 250 miles to the northwest, was 50 percent contained Wednesday morning. Firefighters also adjusted its size downward to 600 acres.
Neither blaze caused any home damage or injuries, but another hot, dry and gusty day was expected as California baked in a spring heat wave as high pressure sat over the West.
Record-high temperatures were forecast for San Diego County as were winds of 25 mph with gusts up to 50 mph, which could complicate efforts.
"It's starting to pick up already," Swanson said of the winds. "But our objective is to get to 50 percent containment or more by this evening."
Poway Unified School District reopened schools Wednesday a day after flames erupted in the fire-prone Rancho Bernardo area of the city, driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds and forced students to be evacuated from two elementary schools and two high schools.
By late afternoon, the flames ripped through canyons to approach expensive homes and new subdivisions on the ridges. It spread to Rancho Santa Fe, one of the nation's wealthiest communities, known for its multimillion-dollar homes, golfing and horseback riding.
Black and gray smoke billowed over northern San Diego, filled with whirling ash and embers that created small spot fires. Flames crept within yards of some homes before firefighters doused them.
On one road, people on bicycles and skateboards stopped to watch as a plane dumped water on flames a half-mile away.
The city of San Diego issued between 16,000 and 17,000 evacuation orders, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. Gore said the Sheriff's Department issued an additional 5,000 evacuation orders outside city limits. All the evacuations were called off by around 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, in the Santa Barbara County community of Lompoc, heavy brush and downed power lines provided special challenges for firefighters, said David Sadecki of the county Fire Department.
Some 689 firefighters remained on scene overnight building lines around the blaze.
"We hope the containment lines hold today," Sadecki said. "We want them to be wind-tested."
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