October 15, 2008

Calif. Fires Continue Rampage

By Oren Dorell

Firefighters in the hills around Los Angeles hope a break in winds today will help them douse two major wildfires, one of which doubled in size to 10,000 acres Tuesday.

Fire crews used hose lines and tools to keep the fire from reaching homes in the hill towns north of Los Angeles such as San Fernando, Granada Hills and Chatsworth, said Inspector Ron Haralson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Helicopters and airplanes saturated brush and trees from the air "so when the fire reaches that point, it loses energy," Haralson said.

Wind gusts of 60 mph and drought-dried brush fueled that fire and another about 10 miles away, which had burned 4,800 acres.

"We need assistance from Mother Nature. We need the winds to slow down," Haralson said.

The two fires and a couple of smaller blazes in the area destroyed more than 60 structures, at least 39 of which were homes, Haralson said. The deaths of two people were blamed on the fires.

The smaller fire was about 70% contained; the larger fire was listed as 0% contained, Haralson said. That fire was headed toward "miles of densely populated communities," Haralson said.

"Ultimately, it could burn all the way to the ocean," he said.

Authorities ordered about 2,450 homes to be evacuated, according to Haralson.

The fires come at the start of the California fire season, which typically runs from October through April. The season arrives with the dry, warm Santa Ana winds that blow out of the Mojave Desert in eastern California and pick up speed as they are channeled through mountain passes and canyons toward the ocean.

One fire was about 1 1/2 miles from Sylmar, home to the Nethercutt Collection of 250 rare European and American automobiles. Chief curator Skip Marketti said most of the cars run and he has plenty of friends who would volunteer to drive them to safety if the fire gets too close.

Below-average rainfall has left Los Angeles vulnerable. The last significant rainfall in Los Angeles was about a half-inch, Feb. 24. The area normally gets more than 4 inches of rain through March and April.

Forecasters said firefighters may get some aid from the weather today.

The strong, dry winds are forecast to subside this afternoon.

"By Saturday night, it looks like we'll get a return of low clouds and fog," from the Pacific, said Stuart Seto, weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, Calif. "That brings in higher humidity. That's what really helps." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>