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Ventura County | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES

Crews Gain Ground on 2 Blazes

Wildfire: Despite stubborn winds, firefighters have 40% containment and continue to build perimeter.

June 09, 2002|WENDY THERMOS and HOLLY WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Firefighters battled a 21,000-acre wildfire amid rising winds near Ojai on Saturday, while a well-placed backfire and strong marine layer apparently helped them get the best of another large blaze near Saugus.

Fueled by a steady breeze and extremely dry chaparral and pines, Ventura County's Wolf fire in the Los Padres National Forest continued to creep along as firefighters worked to carve more lines around the week-old blaze, which was about 40% contained, according to California Department of Forestry officials.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters from a dozen county, state and federal agencies battled the blaze, aided by cooler temperatures and higher humidity. Favorable weather conditions changed by midafternoon, when gusts kicked up to 25 mph and raised concerns the blaze would spread toward the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and Mutau Flats, a privately-owned complex of six cabins. Both sites are about five miles from the fire.

Bulldozers had carved a line around the cabin community, and wildlife officials were monitoring condor chicks nesting within the sanctuary, according to Ruth Norman, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Forestry.

The Sespe Wilderness remained closed indefinitely, while California 33 through Ojai was reopened Friday.

Meanwhile, the 23,500-acre wildfire that began on Copper Hill Road in San Francisquito Canyon apparently died down to embers late Saturday, and about 1,300 of 2,000 firefighters at the blaze were sent home. The Saugus-area fire will not be fully contained, however, until firefighters can cut a line around its entire perimeter, expected by Friday, officials said.

"We're very happy that it's not going anywhere right now," said Capt. Henry Rodriguez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "There's always the possibility that it could pick up from some hot embers, but we're keeping resources on the scene for unexpected flare-ups," he added.

Humidity from the overnight marine layer was so thick early Saturday that firefighters battled one hot spot on Spunky Canyon Road under the cover of fog. Those conditions changed to stiff winds by afternoon.

About 1,100 Green Valley residents evacuated on Friday were kept from their homes again Saturday, although a controlled burn gave them a margin of protection.

Taking advantage of favorable conditions, about 150 firefighters launched flares into the hills at the edge of the tiny community, then kept the flames under control until they burned away potential fuel for the wildfire near homes.

Raul Valenzuela, 43, a Green Valley resident who stayed through the evacuation, said the backfire began only 40 yards from his house.

"All of a sudden, I heard a loud whoosh, and this pine tree went up in flames, like a Roman candle," he said. "I was thinking, shoot, those flames might come in my direction. There's no guarantee that this will go the way they want it to."

With the same thought in mind, crews kept a wary eye on the hillsides late Saturday.

Authorities lifted their evacuation orders about 6 p.m. and a caravan of cars and trucks could be seen snaking through the canyon roads back into Green Valley.Warren and Cathay BeMiller, who as co-owners of the Heart N' Soul Coffee House in downtown Green Valley provided refreshments to firefighters, stood on their patio and yelled "welcome home." "It's nice to see you back home," Warren called out to Mary Wall as she pulled into town.

She replied: "Thanks for taking care of the firemen so that they could take care of our town."

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Times staff writers Carol Chambers, Michael Krikorian and Geoffrey Mohan contributed to this report.

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