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Firefighters Gain Ground as Huge Blaze Still Rages

Disasters: Containment is at 55% after the five-day struggle. Burned acreage could triple before control is won.

August 31, 1996|ERIC SLATER and JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CASTAIC — After five days of struggle in intense heat, firefighters Friday began winning the battle against the Marple fire, but the blaze was still out of control and threatening to consume as much as 112 square miles of brush.

The fire, which had burned through 21,300 acres--more than 33 square miles--of lightly populated forest land in northern Los Angeles County by late Friday, was already the largest in Southern California since 1993. But if conditions remain windy and hot, it could burn an area more than three times as big before it can be stopped, U.S. Forest Service officials warned Friday.

While officials hope to bring the fire under control sooner, crews and bulldozers are working to build a second, backstop fire break at the 72,000-acre line in the event that the fire reaches that point, said Robert Brady, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Because much of the blaze is burning in steep, inaccessible mountain areas north of Castaic, containment has been difficult. But although half the fire continued to burn out of control, firefighters made significant progress Friday, officials said.

By 6 p.m. the fire was 55% contained and for the first time officials made a prediction of when full containment would be achieved, setting the goal at 6 p.m. Tuesday. They had no estimate of when the fire would be fully controlled.

"We have a line halfway around the fire," Brady said, referring to a trench dug around the perimeter of the fire. "We're working hard to strengthen that line today so it becomes permanent."

With the worst apparently over, some of the more than 2,200 fire personnel who battled the blaze were sent home, leaving behind a contingent of about 1,869.

"The threat to houses or facilities has greatly diminished," Brady said. "The fire laid down last night and laid down today."

So far the fire has damaged one home and several sheds, outbuildings and unoccupied trailers.

The fire continued to burn Friday in an uninhabited area of Angeles National Forest north of Castaic Lake between Gorman and Lancaster where there are very few structures, said Fred Coe of the U.S. Forest Service.

Costs associated with fighting the fire had climbed to $3 million, a number that will probably increase, officials said. The blaze has caused no serious injuries or deaths, but several firefighters have suffered minor injuries.

"One guy had both of his eyes swollen shut" as a result of bee stings, said L.A. County Firefighter Paramedic Ed St. Andrew.

The blaze broke out about 12:30 p.m. Monday alongside the Golden State Freeway north of Castaic and California Highway Patrol officers arrested a 15-year-old boy seen walking away from the area. Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies said the boy confessed that he set the fire on a whim, but at his arraignment in Sylmar Juvenile Court on arson charges, the youth denied the charge.

Hot, windy weather has hindered the fight. On Friday winds blew at more than 20 mph and temperatures hit a scorching 106 degrees.

Forecasters predicted more of the same--dry skies and high temperatures--for the long holiday weekend.

"We're looking for mostly clear weather for the weekend--probably more smoke [in the sky] than clouds," said Vladimir Ryshko, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

In the San Fernando Valley, highs will be in the 90s to 105 on Saturday and in the mid-80s to upper-90s for the rest of the weekend. In the Antelope Valley, temperatures are expected to reach 101 to 106 Saturday and the upper 90s to low 100s for the rest of the weekend.

On Saturday in the Antelope Valley, winds from the west will reach 10 to 15 mph, but could increase.

Meanwhile, county firefighters already fatigued by the long fight with the Marple fire were sent scrambling to a second front Friday to snuff a blaze that threatened 20 homes and forced the evacuation of dozens of horses near San Dimas.

The second fire started at about 3:30 p.m., when sparks from a gas-driven wood chipper ignited dry brush. Precision strikes by five water-carrying helicopters and two planes helped a force of 280 firefighters and 30 engines tame the flames within hours, however, keeping the fire to a little more than 100 acres, said fire officials.

No property was lost and injuries were minor: One person suffered smoke inhalation and a firefighter was stung by a bee.

But the fire caused considerable consternation among residents, who fled in a suburban caravan of people, cars and four-footed beasts. Evacuees included 60 to 70 horses rounded up from the stables of Sycamore Canyon Ranch, where one witness said advancing smoke and fire caused panic among some of the animals.

"Some of them were hitting their heads on" the stables, said Debbie Colleasure, 25, who drove in from Covina to help guide the horses to safety. The animals were brought to a local equestrian center or boarded at the county fairgrounds in Pomona.

Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.

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