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Calm, moist air aids fight against Calif. wildfire

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By The Associated Press
Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:48 a.m.
 

CAMARILLO, Calif. — A major change in weather calmed a huge wildfire burning in Southern California coastal mountains Saturday, and firefighters were hopeful that a predicted chance of rain would become reality during the weekend.

High winds and withering hot, dry air was replaced by the normal flow of damp air off the Pacific, significantly reducing fire activity.

"The fire is really laying down," said Tom Kruschke, a Ventura County Fire Department spokesman.

The 43-square-mile blaze at the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains increased to 30 percent, he said. Evacuation orders, however, remained in place for residences on three roads.

Nearly 1,900 firefighters using engines, bulldozers and aircraft intended to take advantage of the change to further corral the blaze.

"I think we will make some significant progress," county fire Capt. Mike Lindbery said early Saturday.

Firefighting efforts were to be focused on the fire's east side, rugged canyons that are a mix of public and private lands, Kruschke said.

The National Weather Service said an approaching low pressure system would bring a 20 percent chance of showers Sunday afternoon. The change in the weather was also expected to bring gusty winds to some parts of Southern California, but well away from the fire area.

Despite its size and speed of growth, the fire that broke out Thursday and quickly moved through neighborhoods of Camarillo Springs and Thousand Oaks has caused damage to just 15 structures, though it has threatened thousands. The only injuries as of Saturday were a civilian and a firefighter involved in a traffic accident away from the fire.

Residents were grateful so many homes were spared.

"It came pretty close. All of these houses - these firemen did a tremendous job. Very, very thankful for them," Shayne Poindexter said. Flames came within 30 feet of the house he was building.

The good fortune of the Camarillo Springs area wasn't the result of luck or clairvoyance by firefighters. It came after years of planning and knowing that sooner or later just such a conflagration was going to strike.

Camarillo Springs, which was nothing more than rugged backcountry when homes began to go up there 30 years ago, was well prepared.

Its homes were built with sprinkler systems and fireproof exteriors from the roofs to the foundations. Residents are required to clear brush and other combustible materials to within 100 feet of the dwellings, and developers had to make sure the cul-de-sacs that fill the area's canyons were built wide enough to accommodate the emergency vehicles seen on TV racing in to battle the flames.

Residents in the area are also particularly vigilant about clearing brush from the hillsides next to their yards, Kruschke said. Normally, firefighters remind people in such areas to do that every June, but in Camarillo Springs people do it every few months. The work paid off this week.

The type of blaze that hit the area usually doesn't strike Southern California wild-land until September or October, after the summer has dried out hillside vegetation. But the state has seen a severe drought during the past year, with the water content of California's snowpack only 17 percent of normal.

That created late-summer conditions by May, and when hot Santa Ana winds and high temperatures arrived this week, the spring flames that firefighters routinely knock down once or twice a year quickly roared up a hillside - out of control.

On Friday, the wildfire reached the ocean, jumped Pacific Coast Highway and burned a Navy base rifle range on the beach at Point Mugu. When winds reversed direction from offshore to onshore, the fire stormed back up canyons toward inland neighborhoods.

The blaze is one of more than 680 wildfires in the state so far this year - about 200 more than average.

In Riverside County, a nearly 5-square-mile fire that destroyed a home burned for a fourth day in mountains north of Banning. It was 85 percent contained.

Fifty-five miles away from Camarillo, in the hills above Glendale, a blaze broke out Friday afternoon, prompting evacuations and closure of a freeway as it quickly charred 75 acres in the Los Angeles suburb.

In Tehama County in Northern California, the size of a wildfire north of Butte Meadows was revised down from more than 15 square miles to 10 square miles, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

The fire, which was 20 percent contained, was burning in a remote area and wasn't posing an imminent threat to any structures.

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