Aided by diminishing winds and cooler air, firefighters began Thursday to encircle a 7,500-acre fire in deep brush in the Cleveland National Forest that has destroyed seven structures, and they declared the upper hand on a 3,700-acre fire that burned a house and two barns near the remote Los Angeles County community of Elizabeth Lake.
Most of the several hundred Riverside County residents evacuated when the Cleveland National Forest fire burned close to the west shore of Lake Elsinore were allowed back into their homes Thursday.
Late Wednesday, firefighters made what one resident described as a "heroic" stand to save dozens of homes, an elementary school and several businesses in the Lakeland Village area of Lake Elsinore. Driven by erratic winds, the fire advanced quickly on the residential area, but firefighters repelled the flames from back yards.
Flames and several large columns of smoke could be seen from Lake Elsinore throughout Thursday, but the danger to homes passed as the blaze moved through remote canyons north and west of the city of 15,000 residents.
"We've lost seven structures, but what is important is we've saved hundreds more," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Thomas Horner.
With the fire 40% contained Thursday evening, officials predicted full containment by tonight if winds remain calm.
"We got a super day in today getting a line around this," Riverside County Fire Engineer Barton Ball said Thursday.
More than 1,900 firefighters from a dozen departments have been battling the fire since it erupted Tuesday afternoon in rugged back country near the Orange-Riverside county line east of San Juan Capistrano.
The blaze, which originated near a candy and novelty shop in the El Cariso area on Ortega Highway (California 74), was not caused by weather or other natural acts.
"It was not started by an act of God," Ball said. "It was started by a human."
Ball stopped short of saying it was intentionally set, although officials believe that there were witnesses to the igniting of the blaze.
"It may have been a camper discarding smoldering charcoal or a carelessly tossed cigarette or match," Ball said. "Or it may have been deliberately set. We just don't know. We are still investigating."
Full control was expected by this morning for the smaller fire near Elizabeth Lake, a remote community of 2,500 in the foothills west of the Antelope Valley.
Los Angeles County firefighters said Thursday that the fire was "95% under control" after destroying a house and two barns, as well as five vehicles and electric power poles and lines. Southern California Edison Co. officials said power was restored by 10:30 a.m. Thursday to about 700 customers who were without power overnight.
"Everybody's feeling real good about the way things are going," County Fire Deparment spokesman Corey Lovers said.
Charred ground surrounded some homes Thursday, showing how close the fire came to causing much greater property loss. Several people praised the efforts of firefighters, saying they had fled their homes expecting to return to smoldering rubble.
"The closest burn is 10 feet from the house," said Don Simpson, a 23-year resident. "Everything around the house is black."
About half a mile away, Velma Majors and her family sifted through what was left of the rented home they moved to four years ago to "get away from the hustle-bustle" of Redondo Beach.
Although the house was razed, Majors recovered an undamaged American flag and a porcelain Nativity set handmade by her mother.
"I just wish I had been able to grab some pictures of the house," Majors said.
The fire broke out shortly before 2 p.m. Wednesday just north of the Green Valley area and raced northeast through very dry brush, sending up 60-foot flames and thick smoke. About 1,500 residents were evacuated from Elizabeth Lake and parts of Green Valley and the Leona Valley, but most returned later Wednesday evening. Investigators had not yet determined a cause for the fire.
A blaze that burned nearly 100 acres at Sycamore Canyon Park in Claremont on Thursday was expected to be under control by early this morning, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said.
Several homes near the fire were evacuated, but there were no reports of injuries or damage to structures, officials said. About 250 firefighters were on the scene.
Cause of the blaze was under investigation.
Times staff writers Edward J. Boyer, Ted Johnson, Nancy Wride, Kevin O'Leary, Thomas Becher and Kevin Roderick contributed to this article.