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As Winds Die Down, Firefighters Gain Ground Against Blaze

May 01, 1996|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA PAULA — Firefighters got the upper hand Tuesday in their battle against a massive wildfire in Los Padres National Forest, as flames burned into the wilderness and away from homes in Santa Paula and Fillmore.

The blaze, which has burned 11,000 acres since Sunday, was 25% contained by Tuesday evening, partly because stiff Santa Ana winds had died down. Officials said they expect the blaze to be under control by the weekend.

This fire, more typical of an August-type wildfire, "should serve as a wake-up call to all of Southern California to the danger of wildfires," warned Richard Andrews of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

California's worst wildfires traditionally come the year after heavy rains, he said, and the winter of 1995 brought uncommonly wet weather.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 2, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Wilson schedule--An article in The Times on Wednesday incorrectly reported why Lt. Gov. Gray Davis was serving as acting governor while touring the scene of a Ventura County brush fire. Gov. Pete Wilson was in Washington testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"We only need to remember the siege of fires we had in 1993 to realize we face an enormous fire danger here," Andrews told reporters.

Lt. Gov. Gray Davis--who toured a maze of scorched canyons by helicopter Tuesday--also warned against complacency.

"We get spoiled because we think we're not supposed to have a fire before June," said Davis, who is acting governor while Gov. Pete Wilson is on vacation. "Mother Nature's going to have a fire whenever she wants."

The fire stripped thick chaparral bare, scorched trees and blackened 11,000 acres overall, but biologists say it ultimately did nature a favor.

As it burned through the southern edge of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, the fire cleared out acres of woody brush up to 100 years old, leaving room for animals to move more easily along wildlife corridors. As investigators began focusing on oil-well equipment wiring that may have sparked the blaze, fire commanders began releasing crews, trimming their forces from 2,000 firefighters to 1,500.

Among those relieved from duty were three volunteer prison inmates who suffered minor injuries in the rugged and relentlessly hot back country. One was treated for heat exhaustion. One needed 10 stitches to close a chain saw gash. And a rockslide injured an ankle of the third.

The drop in winds to a mere 5 or 10 mph also gave fire commanders a chance to regroup and change strategy.

They shifted from standing guard by homes to steering the fire through unpopulated canyons they had planned to use for controlled burns. Firefighters from as far away as Montana were bused in to relieve exhausted forces.

And officials took a look back at how the fire had raged quickly into an 11,000-acre blaze that came close to destroying homes in Fillmore and Santa Paula.

Keith Gurrola, a Ventura County battalion chief, said he and the other 70 firefighters who first fought the blaze north of Fillmore on Sunday were no match for the high winds and steep terrain.

"We didn't have the resources to attack it all the way around," he said. They had to attack its eastern flank mostly by hand and hope it would be held back by the Sespe Creek and two helicopters dropping water on its western flank, he said.

But stiff 50 mph gusts lofted sparks across the creek, igniting new fires, and the blaze quickly raged out of control, he said.

Times correspondents Scott Hadly and Mary F. Pols contributed to this story.

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