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California wildfires: Cooler weather, rain help firefighters

May 04, 2013|By Christine Mai-Duc, Matt Stevens and Catherine Saillant

Assisted by cooler temperatures, firefighters made significant progress overnight against the massive wildfire in Ventura County, which is now 30% contained, officials said early Saturday.

The National Weather Service lifted its red-flag warnings Friday evening, saying that weather conditions were no longer ripe for wildfires. Cooler temperatures are expected throughout the weekend, and humidity also should rise.

Inland areas should experience a 15- to 20-degree drop from Friday’s highs going into the weekend, said Bonnie Bartling of the weather service. Temperatures in coastal areas are expected to top out at 70 degrees with a marine layer crawling over Los Angeles County.

A more dramatic cooling should take place Sunday with temperatures dropping to the mid-60s with possible showers helping firefighters out.

PHOTOS: Springs fire roars toward homes

In Ventura County, authorities said that more than 1,000 firefighters were at work on the Springs fire, which began Thursday near Camarillo. The fire has burned 30,000 acres over the last two days as it ran up canyons and crept within 100 feet of homes in affluent Hidden Valley.

The fire had taken a harrowing reversal Friday, buffeted by stronger onshore winds than officials expected, endangering areas that had previously escaped the first wave of flames. Officials, who had predicted that the fire would be under control by early next week, said they might have to revise those expectations because of Friday's events.

Those on the front lines were hopeful that Saturday's forecasts of a 20-degree temperature drop, higher humidity and light rain would hold true.

"Any time we can take advantage of the situation, we're going to get in there and do it," Ventura County Fire spokesman Tom Kruschke said. "If we get the advantage to move in and get aggressive on this fire and do that safely, absolutely, we're going to do that."

Elsewhere in the region, firefighters quickly knocked down brush fires that threatened homes in Glendale and the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Walnut.

Glendale officials credited the clearing of flammable brush and a decisive air attack as being critical in gaining the upper hand on that 75-acre blaze, which scorched the Chevy Chase Canyon area north of the 134 Freeway.

"We hit it quickly," Glendale spokesman Tom Lorenz said. The city's firefighters, Lorenz said, had been preparing and planning for brush fires due to the recent high winds.

Los Angeles County firefighters took an hour to knock down a five-acre fire that threatened homes in the 600 block of North Silver Valley Trail in Walnut, a suburb of 30,000 near Diamond Bar. Fire Inspector Quvondo Johnson said about 200 firefighters attacked the blaze on the ground and by air.

"We didn't play," he said.

In the Springs fire, about 4,000 homes and 300 commercial properties have been threatened, according to a recent tally from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, with 15 residences, 15 outbuildings and five commercial properties damaged.

Nick Schuler, a battalion chief with Cal Fire's San Diego division, said properties most susceptible are those where homeowners have failed to keep brush cleared for hundreds of feet around structures, as firefighters suggest.

On the flank of the fire in a Newbury Park neighborhood, where five cul-de-sacs reach into the foothills like fingers, Jonathan Neira stood on one of them that was nearly empty and silent except for the hum of a helicopter in the distance. Ash had descended from the smoke-filled sky, layering lawns and rosebushes with a gray down.

"It was frightening," said Neira, a Cal State Channel Islands graduate student. "You could see the whole ridge on fire."

More residents — in Hidden Valley and off Potrero Road, in particular — were ordered to leave Friday as evacuations in Sycamore Canyon, Deer Canyon and Yerba Buena remained in effect, said Bill Nash, a Ventura County fire spokesman. Residents have been allowed to return to the Dos Vientos area and Cal State Channel Islands.

Throughout Friday afternoon, residents in the evacuated areas scrambled to pack their cars and load horses into trailers.

In the Rancho Sierra Vista area, helicopters hurried to drop water on a burning ridge as neighbors in the nearby Banyan neighborhood got ready to leave.

Laurie Deremer, 58, watched the flames and smoke peek over the ridge. "Well, this looks a little ominous," she said.

Near Hidden Valley Road, a team of firefighters quickly extinguished a small spot fire on a flat patch of land. But on Friday afternoon, a wall of flames that grew to more than 15 feet tall began to crest the hills, sending teams from three fire engines into action.

By Friday evening on Hidden Valley Road, some residents were still trickling from their homes as trees burned and others smoldered off the main road.

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