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The Valley

Saugus Blaze Halted as Weather Turns

Wildfire: With the 23,500-acre burn area partially dampened, grateful residents of Green Valley return home Saturday. Winds still a threat in Ojai fire.

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

Aided by a second day of cooler temperatures and higher humidity, firefighters got the upper hand Saturday on the 23,500-acre wildfire that began on Copper Hill Road in San Francisquito Canyon, allowing residents to return to their homes.

Many of the 1,100 residents who fled Thursday returned to the Green Valley area while as many as 1,300 of 2,000 firefighters who had battled the 4-day-old blaze were sent home. The Saugus-area fire was 55% contained, but firefighters must still cut a line around its perimeter, expected by Friday, officials said.

The fire destroyed at least nine homes.

"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 the afternoon.

The 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 flames under control until they burned off the potential fuel 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, as winds began kicking up again.

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.

As the vehicles headed up the winding roads, dozens of fire engines and water tankers were making their way down. Grateful residents honked, waved and gave them a thumbs up.

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" as residents returned.

"It's nice to see you back home," Warren BeMiller 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."

Meanwhile, firefighters battled a 21,000-acre wildfire amid rising winds near Ojai on Saturday, which officials said was 40% contained as of Saturday night.

Fueled by a steady breeze and extremely dry chaparral and pines, Ventura County's Wolf fire in Los Padres National Forest continued to creep along as firefighters worked to carve more lines around the week-old blaze, 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.

*

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

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