Erratic winds hinder, help S. Calif. firefighters

By: AP
By: AP
A U.S. forest service firefighter battles towering flames burning along Little Tugunga Road, in the Angeles National Forest, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles on Sunday Oct. 12, 2008. Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson says the blaze has charred up to 750 acres in the rugged area of Little Tujunga Canyon.  (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)

A U.S. forest service firefighter battles towering flames burning along Little Tugunga Road, in the Angeles National Forest, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles on Sunday Oct. 12, 2008. Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson says the blaze has charred up to 750 acres in the rugged area of Little Tujunga Canyon. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Ferocious desert winds pushed one of three major wildfires burning across Southern California to nearly double its size overnight, firefighters said Tuesday, the third day of the blazes that have destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands to flee.

One person was killed by the flames; another died in a car crash as a blaze neared the freeway.

The fires have charred more than 25 square miles in suburban Los Angeles and northern San Diego County, with the fiercest blazes burning in the San Fernando Valley, about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Investigators are looking into the cause of all three fires.

The whipping winds caused a fire in the west end of the San Fernando Valley, in the Porter Ranch area, to double in size from 5,000 to nearly 10,000 acres overnight, fire officials said.

But just 10 miles away, the erratic Santa Ana winds subsided, allowing firefighters to contain nearly 70 percent of a blaze burning at the northeast end of the valley. Hours earlier, that fire had been only 5 percent contained. Authorities reduced the acreage on that fire to 4,800 acres from 5,300 acres.

Firefighters worried the erratic winds could return to the area. In other parts of the valley, they were gusting to 50 mph, fire officials said.

The winds didn't return to the northeast section of the valley as expected overnight, fire Inspector Paul Hartwell said. "It's, how do I want to put this? Controlled optimism."

In San Diego County, two wildfires that began at Camp Pendleton had merged. Authorities lifted an evacuation order for about 1,000 homes but said another 500 homes along the border of the Marine base remained vacated.

Marine Cpl. Priscilla Vitale said the fire had scorched more than 3,000 acres and was about 25 percent contained.

The fires started Monday on base training ranges but were not caused by any type of military training, she said.

Another fire burning in eastern San Diego County had burned 100 acres and forced the evacuation of 300 homes near the border community of Campo. That evacuation order was lifter later Tuesday morning, after the fire was about 70 percent contained.

A fire broke out in the Little Mountain area in San Bernardino just east of Interstate 215. It was threatening several hundred homes and some residents were being evacuated, said fire spokesman Steve Tracy.

The fire at the northeast end of the San Fernando Valley - called the Marek fire - started Sunday and burned 38 mobile homes and one single-family home. It was blamed for one of two fire-related deaths.

Nineteen structures - some of them homes - were destroyed by the fire in the Porter Ranch area and a motorist died when he was rear-ended on a smoky roadway after fire jumped the freeway.

More than 2,000 firefighters and a fleet of water- and retardant-dropping aircraft battled the two fires that had chewed through more than 15 square miles.

"The fire wants to make its way to the coast, and we're going to do our level best to stop it," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey.

Fire officials alerted other communities to the west in the Ventura County city of Simi Valley and south to Malibu, 20 miles away, as an ominous plume streamed over neighborhoods and far out to sea.

The California Highway Patrol warned of snarled traffic in some areas. In San Bernardino, Interstate 215 was closed in both directions as firefighters dealt with separate fires in that area.

On Tuesday morning, authorities reopened state Highway 118 in the San Fernando Valley.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and urged residents to be prepared for anything.

"Winds are causing fire conditions to change by the hour, which is why it is so important that residents in the areas surrounding these wildfires heed warnings from public safety officials to evacuate," Schwarzenegger said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday the state has $1.5 billion in reserve to battle fires.

On Monday, residents were not allowed to drive into one of Porter Ranch's gated communities, so they parked their cars, ran to their homes and carried out whatever they could in pillow cases, sacks and suitcases. Some ran out clutching paintings.

The fire destroyed at least four homes in nearby Twin Lakes, a neighborhood of narrow streets perched above Highway 118.

Matthew Vitiello, 46, stuck it out with his two dogs as embers rained down around him and a nearby home burned. Asked why he decided not to evacuate, Vitiello pointed to a pine tree across the street.

"If that sucker goes, then it's time for me to go," he said.

A second fatality was discovered Monday in the rugged canyonlands below the mountainous Angeles National Forest. The victim was a man who appeared to be a transient living with a dog in a makeshift shelter, officials said. Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa said it would take some time to identify the victim.

Dry and warm Santa Ana winds typically blow into Southern California between October and February, priming vegetation for fires by slashing moisture levels. Last October, fires fanned by Santa Anas destroyed 2,196 homes and burned a combined 800 square miles in Southern California.

Associated Press writers Greg Risling, Thomas Watkins, Alicia Chang, Christina Hoag, John Rogers and Chelsea Carter contributed to this report.

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