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Fires Give Way to Rain as Number of Outages Dwindles

January 09, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

The wild and windy weather that fanned three wildfires and caused massive power outages in Southern California was replaced Wednesday by light rains and cooler temperatures.

The showers were somewhat unusual because they came directly after the Santa Ana winds, the National Weather Service said. Forecasts for the rest of the week called for cloudy skies and a possibility of showers and high temperatures in the mid-60s.

About 4,200 Southern California Edison customers, mostly in Orange County, the San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire, still lacked power Wednesday, the utility said. Since the winds began blowing late Sunday night, more than 811,000 customers served by Edison in Southern California suffered power interruptions.

Power is expected to be restored to all homes by today, but the utility couldn't make any guarantees, said Tom Boyd, an Edison spokesman.

"The reason it is taking so long is that we've had areas that were devastated," Boyd said. "If you take a drive out to Arcadia or the city of Orange, you can find places where 15 to 20 poles were knocked down or severely damaged. Taking poles out of the ground and hanging high-voltage wires is not something done quickly. It's construction work, and it can be dangerous."

The Santa Anas knocked out electricity to 1.3 million customers in Southern California in January 1997, and about 1 million lost power during a heat wave in the summer of 1998.

By most accounts, the desert winds that raked the Southland on Monday were especially fierce. One gust in Glendale was measured at 79 mph, and another was clocked at 80 mph near Dulzura, along the Mexican border. Sustained winds over 74 mph are considered hurricane force.

The violent breezes fanned blazes in Malibu, Norco and on Santa Catalina Island that surprised many residents who wrongly assumed that fire season had concluded after heavy rains in December.

The largest of the three blazes was in Malibu, where the so-called Pacific fire scorched 759 acres of coastal sage scrub and damaged three homes, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said. The blaze was originally estimated to have swept across 2,200 acres, but aerial photographs taken Wednesday revealed that much less land had burned.

More than 1,000 firefighters from throughout Southern California were dispatched to the scene. There is no estimate yet of the cost of extinguishing the blaze.

The Malibu and Catalina fires probably were sparked by downed power lines. The Norco fire, which consumed about 151 acres and destroyed four homes, is believed to be arson.

Cindy Sapper, 45, of Mira Loma was arraigned in Riverside County Superior Court Wednesday and charged with one count of arson to a wildland area and three counts of arson to a structure. She was arrested Monday night after witnesses reported seeing her drive away from the brushy area along the Santa Ana River bottom immediately before the fire began, said Capt. Greg Everhart of the Riverside County Fire Department.

The Santa Catalina Island fire burned 275 acres of brush and was completely contained by Wednesday morning.

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