Fickle winds fuel California fires for third day


  • World
  • Wednesday, 15 Oct 2008

MYT 4:02:38 AM

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Firefighters made gains on Tuesday against two deadly brush fires threatening homes on the fringes of Los Angeles for a third day, as dry, desert-borne winds that had been stoking the flames diminished.

A two-storey home is engulfed by flames during a wildfire in Chatsworth, California October 13, 2008. Firefighters made gains on Tuesday against two deadly brush fires threatening homes on the fringes of Los Angeles for a third day, as dry, desert-borne winds that had been stoking the flames diminished. (REUTERS/Gene Blevins)

The more ferocious of two wildfires at the northern edge of the heavily populated San Fernando Valley doubled in size, to nearly 10,000 acres, as storm-force Santa Ana winds howled through the bone-dry brush of canyons and foothills overnight.

But water-dropping helicopters resumed an all-out air assault on the blaze at daybreak, and by late morning firefighters had managed to largely steer the flames away from housing subdivisions, with the help of dwindling winds.

Still, about 3,000 people remained evacuated from hundreds of homes, and authorities urged residents to remain vigilant. They said at least 19 buildings have been destroyed.

"This is the first Santa Ana event of the year, and we're not out of the water yet. We have a long way to go with this fire season," said state Deputy Fire Chief Stan Lake.

A separate fire that scorched 5,000 acres several miles to the east was declared 70 percent contained Tuesday morning, and most of the 1,200 residents forced to flee their homes on Sunday and Monday were being allowed to return.

"I'm very, very proud of the firefighters, because yesterday when we talked ... it looked really bad," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters. "They've turned this whole thing around."

The situation appeared far more dire on Monday, with fire officials saying they worried that fierce winds could push the fires across the San Fernando Valley and perhaps even to the Pacific Ocean.

Two people died on Monday due to the fires -- a homeless man sheltering under a highway and motorist killed in a head-on collision on a smoke-shrouded freeway. Since Sunday, the blazes have scorched a total of 6,000 hectares. Thirty mobile homes and several other structures have been destroyed.

A third fire broke out on Monday on the sprawling U.S. Marine base of Camp Pendleton, 130 km south of Los Angeles, forcing officials to evacuate thousands from base housing. Some 1,200 hectares burned, and the fire was about 25 percent contained early Tuesday.

The simultaneous blazes, marking the first big conflagrations of the region's high fire-risk season -- come one year after 30 wildfires swept through Southern California in one week, killing a dozen people, destroying 2,000 homes and forcing the historic evacuation of 500,000 residents.

The famous Santa Ana winds that blow in from the desert at this time of year were forecast to continue into Wednesday. While the gusts were less fierce than expected, officials warned the gusts were erratic and posed extreme danger to residents and the thousands of firefighters working the lines.

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