Damp weather aids firefighters, but winds set to return

  • By Chelsea J. Carter Associated Press
  • Tuesday, October 30, 2007 12:16pm

SAN DIEGO — Firefighters aided by damp weather increased containment of the last of Southern California’s big wildfires Monday, hoping to squelch remaining flames before the possible return of Santa Ana winds.

There was a chance of weak-to-moderate Santa Anas on Friday and Saturday, but the National Weather Service said wind speeds should be “half or less” than those of the dry, withering blasts that fanned conflagrations last week.

In the meantime, clouds drawn ashore by low pressure over the Pacific streamed across the region and forecasters predicted some chance of sprinkles through Wednesday morning. The flow of ocean air “should provide a literal breath of fresh air, flush out the smoke and improve the air quality,” the Weather Service said.

Fire crews were already benefiting from precipitation in various areas, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We continue to make great progress,” he said.

The 58,401-acre Ranch Fire northwest of Los Angeles in Ventura County was fully contained overnight, and crews were pushing to complete lines around six other big blazes. Containment estimates on those fires ranged from 65 percent to 95 percent Monday.

“It’s a little premature to be celebrating, that’s for sure,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Fred Daskoski said. “We’re looking for full control within a week but if we get any of these winds returning, there is a possibility that a couple of spots could have a blowout, and then we’d be off to the races again.”

The winds, which last week gusted up to 100 mph, pushed flames across more than 500,000 acres and forced thousands into emergency shelters in seven Southern California counties.

As of Monday, the state Office of Emergency Services tallied 2,786 structures destroyed, including more than 2,000 homes.

With nearly all mandatory evacuation orders lifted, wildfire victims were trying to deal with their losses.

Nearly 8,300 people had contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance, said spokeswoman Kelly Hudson.

FEMA has handed out $600,000 in housing assistance so far, most of it for rental payments and hotel stays, she said.

The agency was putting about 260 inspectors in the field to verify claims on properties, she said.

The Red Cross reported 389 people in 11 shelters, though it was unclear how many other remaining evacuees had found their own lodging.

Southeast of Los Angeles, Orange County authorities announced that residents were being allowed to return to many neighborhoods that had been evacuated because of the 28,400-acre Santiago Canyon fire, which still burned Monday in forest near the Riverside County line.

The Orange County blaze was found to have been started by arson, and county Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather on Monday asked the public to call a tip line if they have photos or video taken around the time it started at an intersection between 5:55 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. on Oct. 21.

Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said investigators believe up to 40 people may have taken personal photos or video in the area.

Elsewhere, some communities also remained off-limits in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles.

Airplanes equipped with infrared sensors scanned the region overnight and discovered areas with fires smoldering underground, said Ramona DeGeorgio-Venegas, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino National Forest.

“You still have the risk that those could flare up and burn those houses, so there’s still potential for danger,” she said.

In the hard-hit resort mountain communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, many wanting to return were frustrated by roadblocks outside their neighborhoods.

Brian Babauta, 31, drove up Sunday from a San Bernardino hotel to try to get to his parents’ house at Lake Arrowhead, but was turned away at a checkpoint.

Babauta finished the day miles away, sleeping in his truck in a grocery store parking lot.

“We tried getting up there through a back route down a dirt road, and there was a firefighter sitting there saying stuff was still burning,” Babauta said. “I just want to see if the rumors are true that my house is still standing.”

Seven deaths have been directly attributed to the fires, including those of four suspected illegal immigrants, whose burned bodies were found near the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday.

Associated Presss Garance Burke in Crestline, Allison Hoffman and Bernie Wilson in San Diego, Aaron C. Davis in El Cajon, and Gillian Flaccus, Jacob Adelman and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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