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Archive for Wednesday, September 2, 2009

California in for long fire season

September 2, 2009

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— Firefighters reported progress Tuesday against a gigantic blaze on the edge of Los Angeles that might be just a preview of even greater dangers ahead. The peak Southern California fire season hasn’t even started yet.

The worst fires typically flare up in the fall, when ferocious Santa Ana winds can drive fires out of wilderness areas and into suburbs. As a result, Southern California could be in for a long wildfire season.

“When you see a fire burning like this, with no Santa Ana winds, we know that with the winds, it would be so much worse, so much more intense,” said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Whaling.

The Santa Anas are so devastating when they carry fire because they sweep down from the north and reach withering speeds as they squeeze through wilderness canyons and passes and plunge into developed areas.

Even though winds have been mostly calm since the blaze began along the northern fringe of Los Angeles and its suburbs, the flames have spread over 199 square miles of forest in a week.

Citing new damage assessments, officials Tuesday raised the number of destroyed homes from 53 to 62 but said the number of homes remaining under mandatory evacuation orders was reduced by 300 to 6,000. Up to 12,000 homes were considered threatened at the height of the fire, though not all were ordered evacuated. One of the threatened houses was the home where the movie “E.T.” was filmed.

But it was not the only significant blaze in Southern California.

In the inland region east of Los Angeles, 2,000 homes were being threatened by a fire of more than 1.5 square miles in the San Bernardino County community of Oak Glen, and a nearby 1.3-square-mile blaze was putting 400 homes at risk in Yucaipa. More than twice as many homes had been threatened but aircraft held the fire back and it was 70 percent contained by Tuesday evening.

“There’s action everywhere,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said as a helicopter interrupted his comments at a news conference in San Bernardino County.

Containment of the big fire, known as the Station Fire, rose to 22 percent. U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich said he felt better but was not willing to say a corner had been turned.

“Right now if I were in a boxing match I’d think we’re even today,” Dietrich said.

Weather was more humid, which helps brush resist burning, but the downside was a possibility of dry lightning. Some sprinkles were reported, but no significant rain.

Officials were worried about the threat to a historic observatory and TV, radio and other antennas on Mount Wilson northeast of Los Angeles. But on Tuesday, firefighters set backfires near the facilities before a giant World War II-era seaplane-turned-air tanker made a huge water drop on flames below the peak.

The fire was still moving toward Mount Wilson, but Dietrich said he was confident that any damage would be minimized.

The Station Fire is one of hundreds of wildfires in a season that usually does not gather steam until October, when the Santa Ana winds arrive.

This year’s destructive Southern California wildfires began in May, when 80 homes were destroyed and more than a dozen others were damaged in the Santa Barbara area.

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