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California faces troubling wildfire season

FIREFIGHTERS reported progress yesterday 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 then 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 nearly 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) of forest in a week.

Citing new damage assessments, officials yesterday 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 (nearly 4 square kilometers) in the San Bernardino County community of Oak Glen, and a nearby 1.3-square-mile (3.4 square kilometer) blaze was putting 900 homes at risk in Yucaipa.

"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. US 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 yesterday, 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 cash-strapped state has spent US$106.5 million of its US$182 million emergency firefighting fund, and was hoping to get federal assistance to ease the burden.

The Station Fire was the biggest but not the most destructive of the wildfires currently burning in California. Northeast of Sacramento, a fire burning over a half square mile (1.3 square kilometers) destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn. The fire was 80 percent contained yesterday and no longer threatened any homes.


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