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Weather gives fire crews a hand

CALIFORNIA

Cooler temperatures and higher humidity give those battling the Springs fire in Ventura County a break. Now, they hope for rain.

May 05, 2013|Christine Mai-Duc and Kurt Streeter
  • Fire crews trudge through the burned area looking for hot spots, their battle against the Springs fire in Ventura County having abruptly turned into mostly a mop-up operation.
Fire crews trudge through the burned area looking for hot spots, their battle… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Aided by calmer winds and cooler temperatures, fire crews began gaining control Saturday of a fast-moving blaze that scorched large swaths of rugged mountain terrain and forced mass evacuations in Ventura County.

By late afternoon the so-called Springs fire, having engulfed about 28,000 acres since its Thursday start, was 56% percent contained and all mandatory evacuation orders were lifted. Though the blaze has damaged 15 homes and five commercial buildings, no residences have been destroyed and no injuries have been reported, officials said.

Compared to Thursday and Friday -- when fire raced through Ventura County hillsides, causing officials to call for the evacuation of about 5,000 residents -- Saturday was relatively calm for firefighters and residents in the most heavily threatened areas, neighborhoods full of multimillion-dollar ranch homes near Thousand Oaks and Camarillo.

By late afternoon, as the air kept cooling, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Fernando Herrera said officials expected to have full containment by Monday.

"This is good," said Herrera, looking up at fog rolling inland on ocean breezes. "This is what we want."

Earlier in the day, fearing a replay of a 1993 inferno that crept from hillsides and destroyed 53 homes, crews focused their efforts on keeping the blaze from reaching neighborhoods on the rural western edges of Thousand Oaks. From a vantage point near Potrero Road and Wendy Drive, light wisps of smoke could be seen rising from a distance into the sky, but nothing more. As firefighters monitored the smoke, residents calmly snapped photographs.

"The activity has dropped dramatically," said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Mike Parkes, who, like most of his colleagues, also noted a drop-off in the blaze's intensity, largely because of the sudden weather change.

Temperatures in the coastal areas near the fire dipped Saturday into the 60s and 70s, falling from unseasonable highs that had climbed toward the 90s on Thursday, when the blaze began near Thousand Oaks. Along with the cooler weather, winds weakened and humidity levels began rising to near 70% from a low of 5% earlier in the week, according to Scott Sukup, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

A 50% chance of rain is projected Sunday and Monday in the area, said Sukup, adding that his agency has ended a red-flag alert announced earlier in the week that warned of increased fire danger throughout much of the region.

On the western outskirts of Thousand Oaks on Saturday, as crews used controlled burns to ensure containment of the blaze, residents in nearby neighborhoods watched from their properties.

"With all these guys out here, it's pretty safe," said Charles Ash, 57, who owns a large property close to the containment line that fire crews were working on near Potrero Road. Ash said that on Friday he had started preparing to help fight the fire himself, pulling out hoses he can attach to hydrants on his property and readying wet burlap sacks in case he needed to snuff out hot embers. He even got his two sons out of school to help if need be. "We needed everyone we could get," he said.

On Saturday, Ash felt more confident but wasn't ready to fully drop his guard. "We're not putting away those hoses until Monday afternoon," he said.

The potential for a devastating blaze became clear early in the week, when Cal Fire authorities and meteorologists determined that ominous weather patterns were setting up over Southern California: hot Santa Ana winds, unseasonably high temperatures reaching the 90s and low humidity.

Authorities dispatched hundreds of firefighters from across the state to Ventura County. Firefighters and additional ground personnel were also deployed from Oregon, Arizona, Idaho and New Mexico.

"We knew big fires were imminent, we just didn't know where," Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler said.

Early in the week, nearly 3,000 acres burned near Riverside. Another blaze has torched 6,700 acres in Northern California and continues to burn. On Friday, five fires were reported in San Diego County and another on Saturday in steep forestland in Riverside County south of Banning.

Shortly after the Springs fire erupted, state and local officials determined that it would become a major incident, threatening residents, homes and commercial buildings.

"A decision was made to dispatch resources from across the state to Camarillo," Schuler said.

More than 1,800 fire personnel were concentrated on the Springs fire, which burned all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Some could be seen Saturday, working from a makeshift base on a private ranch near Potrero Road -- about 20 fire personnel clearing brush with chain saws, stopping occasionally to alert water-dropping helicopters overhead which hot spots to hit.

"This isn't baby-sitting quite yet," said Ventura County Fire Capt. Wayne Farber. "We have to put a line around the fire.... Cross your fingers there will be rain in a couple days.... There's still a lot of hard, dirty work to still be done."

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christine.maiduc@latimes.com

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Times staff reporters Louis Sahagun, Rong-Gong Lin II and Rosanna Xia contributed to this report.

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