California crews make progress on wind-stoked fires

LOS ANGELES Tue Oct 14, 2008 6:30pm EDT

1 of 20. Firefighters try to put out the fire in a storage yard during the second day of the Marek wildfire in Sylmar, California October 13, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Gene Blevins

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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.

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 largely to steer the flames away from housing subdivisions, with the help of dwindling winds. A flare-up briefly menaced one neighborhood, but a hasty stand by ground crews and helicopters kept the blaze at bay.

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

"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 1,800 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 officials 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 overcome by smoke and flames in a makeshift shelter and a motorist killed in a head-on collision on a smoke-shrouded freeway. Since Sunday, some 60 structures have been destroyed, including 30 mobile homes.


Thick smoke, soot and ash from the fires hung over some areas, posing a potential health risk for people with respiratory ailments.

"From my front yard, I could barely see anything today," said Nancy Atalla, 37, one of hundreds of evacuees at a church serving as an emergency shelter. "I could see the fire on the east a little. It was very scary."

Judith Arner, 67, said she and her husband, Raphael, 74, were ready to go when evacuation orders came before dawn.

"I packed all our (photo) albums last night, and as soon as I got called to leave at 4 a.m. today, I grabbed them and we left," she said, holding hands with her spouse. "Those photos of our wedding and children -- those are important," he added, his eyes welling with emotion.

The twin blazes, marking the first big conflagrations of Southern California's high fire-risk season, were the largest of several that have erupted across the state since Sunday, charring nearly 27,000 acres in all from San Diego County to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

One fire that broke out on Monday on the sprawling U.S. Marine base of Camp Pendleton, 80 miles south of Los Angeles, consumed some 3,000 acres and forced about 2,000 residents of the base from their homes. The blaze was reported 25 percent contained early on Tuesday, and the evacuation order was lifted for one of two base housing units.

The latest incidents come one year after 30 wildfires swept through Southern California in a single 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.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)