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Copper Wildfire Nearly Doused

June 10, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND and MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Fire crews came close Sunday to containing a fire that charred 23,500 acres near Santa Clarita, but they had more difficulty with a second blaze near Ojai that has consumed nearly 21,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest.

And about 150 homes were evacuated Sunday in Mooney Flat, in Northern California, as winds fanned a 1,000-acre wildfire closer to the structures.

Authorities said they expect to fully contain the fire in the Green Valley in northern Los Angeles County by this evening. In five days, the Copper fire destroyed nine houses and came perilously close to dozens more. It was named after the street where a welder's sparks set off the blaze Wednesday.

"It had attitude," said U.S. Forest Service firefighter Aaron Lawson, one of nearly 2,000 personnel called to the wildfire. "It took off and burned like the best of them. We got ahead of it and put it out."

On Sunday, the cost of battling the Copper fire had surpassed $3.7 million and was projected to reach $4.5 million. Eight firefighters sustained minor injuries.

Dry brush throughout the region will almost certainly fuel more fires in the summer and fall.

As fire engines pulled out of Green Valley, a neighborhood of dirt roads, horse corrals and ranch homes, residents returned after evacuating. On one street, neighbors were planning a "survival party" to celebrate their good fortune. The hillside abutting their homes was charred, but the flames stopped there.

Rather than evacuate her house with all its mementos, Faith Burton chose to watch it all.

"If I was going to go," the actress said, "I wanted to see it go myself and wish it well."

Surveying the ashen hills in San Francisquito Canyon, Burton said, "It's like a moonscape."

Weary crews near Ojai battled the so-called Wolf fire for the ninth day Sunday, allowing only a 55-acre growth in the blaze. But the job is far from over, as containment remained at 40% for the second day.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters from a dozen county, state and federal agencies have attacked the blaze from land and air since it began June 1.

Forest service officials had anticipated major progress in containing the wildfire after three straight days of milder temperatures and marine-layer moisture, but that did not materialize as of Sunday evening.

"Even though we are building a line, we're not confident enough about whether the line will hold to be able to say we're getting extra containment," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Turner.

Crews have been able to keep the fire from burning over the north side of the Pine Mountain ridge and from creeping south of Sespe Creek, said Barry Peckham of the U.S. Forest Service. The threat to structures would have been much greater had flames crossed those barriers, he said.

The Yuba County fire started about 3 a.m. Sunday after high winds knocked power lines into a tree, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry told the Associated Press. Winds pushed the fire southeast in the direction of Mooney Flat, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, where the evacuation of 150 homes was ordered. The fire was 30% contained Sunday evening and no injuries were reported, officials said.

Over the last week, the fire charred 20,850 acres of thick, extremely dry chaparral brush and pinyon pines. So far, it has cost federal, state and county agencies $8.2 million.

The cause of the blaze is still under investigation.

Several roads and recreation areas, including the entire Sespe Wilderness, remain closed. California 33 is open, however, as is Wheeler Gorge campground, officials said.

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