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Fall and fire season off to a blazing start

Santa Ana winds drive five wildfires, including one in Ventura County that burns 6,000 acres and threatens homes. Others erupt in Temecula, Norco, Riverside and Redlands.

September 23, 2009|Catherine Saillant, Ruben Vives and Kimi Yoshino

Fire season got off to an ominous start Tuesday as Santa Ana winds fueled five brush fires across Southern California, including a 8,600-acre blaze that forced hundreds of residents to flee their homes in Ventura County.

The blazes erupted like clockwork on the first day of autumn, which typically marks the beginning of Santa Ana winds. Firefighters braced for a tough week ahead with more unusually strong winds and extreme heat forecast through the end of the week.

"We're in triple-digit temperatures and single-digit humidities . . . and it's beginning with a bang here," said climatologist William Patzert of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "There's not much good news."

In Ventura County, more than 600 firefighters mobilized to combat the fast-moving Moorpark wildfire, which started just south of Fillmore near Guiberson Road and ate through miles of rugged hillsides and agricultural land until reaching the outskirts of Moorpark.

The fire was pushed south by wind gusts of more than 50 mph, at a pace that surprised firefighters.

At 2:30 p.m., the fire had burned 1,500 acres; an hour later, 6,000.

"It's dangerous because it moves so quickly you can really get caught off guard," said Ventura County Fire Capt. Ron Oatman. "Some of [the flames] are knee-high or less and you think you can walk out there, but it can just move so quick it can really outrun somebody, especially with that wind."

The rapid spread of the fire left residents scrambling to get out of its path.

"It scares the daylights out of you because you don't know what it's going to do," said Doug King, who watched the fire sweep across the brown hills above his avocado orchards. "All you know is when the winds start blowing, there's going to be trouble."

King, who was patrolling his ranch on an all-terrain vehicle, said he's been lucky because he has never lost any property to wildfires over the years. "It's a nice place to live except for fires," he said.

A few miles away, rancher Brett Everts raced to evacuate what livestock he could. He was walking one of his quarter horses about a mile up the road to another ranch, where it was safer. He said he had already evacuated eight horses and two cats.

"I still have 100 head of cattle in the pasture," he said. "But I can't do anything about that. They'll be OK. They just move away from the heat."

By evening, the fire was 10% contained. Firefighters were "cautiously optimistic" that they could gain ground and take advantage of winds that were dying down as the sun set. "We take every inch we can take," said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash.

But they remained uncertain what the morning would bring, with more Santa Anas in the forecast. The fire, Nash warned, is not out of fuel. "If the winds come up, if we get some kind of change, it can take right off and run again," he said.

Fire officials said they believe that some outbuildings and agricultural structures were destroyed but that they would not know whether homes had burned until they could survey the fire zone.

The Ventura County Sheriff's Department said the fire appeared to have been started by spontaneous combustion of manure from a local ranch. Officials did not disclose exactly where the fire started, but spontaneous manure fires are fairly common in farm areas, often occurring during extreme heat.

The Ventura County fire was the largest of several blazes that threatened homes and jangled nerves. Late Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the county a disaster area.

A fire started about 11 a.m. in Temecula near Jefferson Avenue, burning five acres in an open field. Crews quickly contained the blaze.

In Norco, a fire that began about noon near the Riverside-Norco border and spread toward Hidden Valley Golf Club had consumed 175 acres and was 50% contained.

Another small fire broke out in Riverside in the Santa Ana River bed near Van Buren Boulevard about 1:20 p.m. Firefighters used air drops to quell the spread of flames. By 6 p.m., it was 17% contained.

And in Redlands, flames licked houses on Sunset Drive, threatening several evacuated structures, in a 17-acre blaze that began shortly after 2 p.m. Two homes were damaged but none lost, said Carl Baker, a spokesman for the city of Redlands. One firefighter suffered a heat injury battling the blaze, which was about 50% contained by 5:45 p.m.

The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning late Tuesday for mountain and canyon areas across Southern California. That warning has been extended through Thursday evening, prompting U.S. Forest Service officials to push back their containment date for the massive Station fire until the warning expires.

That fire in the Mt. Wilson area of the Angeles National forest has destroyed about 160,557 acres and is 94% contained, said Jay Nichols, a Forest Service spokesman.

Patzert, the JPL climatologist, said the high temperatures follow an unusually cool summer. But after four years of below-normal rainfall and no real rain in the region for seven months, the situation, Patzert said, is "incendiary."

"I hate to use that word, but it's so dry and it's so hot," Patzert said. "I call them desiccating winds. They just suck the moisture out of vegetation and soil -- what little there is. This could be a smoky fall."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Winton, Rong-Gong Lin II, Andrew Blankstein and Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.

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