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SALT LAKE CITY — More than two dozen Utah firefighters are set to return from California just in time for Christmas.
Barry Locke, the engine boss for Weber Fire District, had a single Christmas wish after returning home to his wife and 15-year-old son Friday.
"I want everyone to make it home safe," Locke said.
His four-person team from Weber County already is home safe, 2 1/2 weeks after traveling to Southern California to fight the Thomas Fire.
Others with Unified and West Valley forces were set to return Saturday, though that could change as a massive fire continues to threaten some areas.
The blaze, at more than 272,000 acres, is now responsible for two deaths and has destroyed 750 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Locke described an eerie scene near the fire, where ash fell like snow as residents who were not under evacuation stayed home to avoid the sooty air. Others wore masks.
"It was like a ghost town, because nobody was out and about in it," Locke said. "But when you did see somebody, they wanted to pat you on the back, shake your hand and just say thank you."
Several residents of the high-end neighborhood where the team was working — near former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's home — expressed appreciation when they ran into the Weber crew at the supermarket, gas station and elsewhere.
"People were very gracious and thankful. It was really awesome," Locke said. "We don't do it for that reason, but it's sure nice to hear the praises on the other end."
At one point, a little boy in a firefighter's outfit asked Locke and his crew for autographs, Locke recalled. The team captured other expressions of gratitude on its Facebook page, including a poster with what appeared to be children's drawings of engines. It read, "THANK YOU."
Despite the devastation, the team couldn't help but feel awestruck by the historic nature of the fire, said Locke. California's own crews, plus federal firefighters and those from other states, all were working to douse the flames fueled by strong winter winds.
By Friday, the blaze was 65 percent contained and all mandatory evacuations were lifted, the Associated Press reported.
"History was being made while we were there," said Locke, whose team traveled there and back in a truck with four-wheel drive and 800 gallons of water.
Locke's team was sent home Thursday and stayed overnight in Mesquite, Nevada, on the way back. A team of 23 from Unified and West Valley was set to follow, with an anticipated arrival sometime Saturday afternoon.
Said Locke: "This is the best part of going out on the fire, is coming home."