California, USA — Firefighters hurried Monday to control the stubbornwildfires that continued to burn throughout Southern California before the SantaAna winds return this week.
Forecasters are predicting offshore winds by the weekend, though the ferocitywas expected to be less than the gale-force winds that spread wildfires throughthe region’s bone-dry tinder last week. Moist air and lower temperatures inrecent days have helped firefighters battle the blazes.
“We’ve had good weather for firefighting,” said Rich Phelps, a U.S.Forest Service spokesman. “This is a window of opportunity we have to take.”
Of the roughly three dozen fires that have burned more than half a million acres,seven were still not contained. Four fires were nearly under control: In SanDiego County, the Witch fire was 95% contained; in San Bernardino County, theSlide fire 90% and Grass Valley fire 95%; and in Los Angeles County, the Ranchfire 97%.
Still burning in San Diego County was the Harris fire at 75% contained and thePoomacha fire at 65%. In Orange County, the Santiago fire was 65% contained,with full control expected Friday.
“The last person’s not coming off the line until the perimeter’s cold,”said Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion of the Orange County Fire Authority.
The work will not be over once the fires are extinguished. Recovery plansdesigned to prevent mudslides on the now-barren hillsides during winter rainswill need to be implemented.
The fires destroyed 2,786 structures in Southern California, including more than2,000 homes, according to the state Office of Emergency Services. Seven peoplehave died, and about 500,000 were ordered to evacuate their homes. Mostevacuation orders have been lifted across seven counties in Southern California.
Overjoyed residents of Orange County’s rural canyons returned home Monday forthe first time in a week.
“Oh, my God, I’m so glad to be home,” said Tim Stinson, 56, halflaughing and half sobbing as he hugged a neighbor from Modjeska Canyon, whereseveral homes burned to the ground. “I don’t think I’ve cried in 50 years,but I’m crying today.”
But some mandatory evacuations remained in force, including Silverado Canyon inOrange County, where 200 homes were still threatened. The fire was burningslowly down the south side of the back of the canyon. Black Star and Bakercanyons also remained under mandatory evacuation.
The Santiago fire was burning northeast through heavy chaparral in the ClevelandNational Forest, and firefighters had six miles of fire line left to buildbefore they planned to pinch off the blaze above the Silverado Canyon area nearModjeska Peak, Phelps said.
The Orange County blaze, which has scorched 28,400 acres and destroyed 15 homes,was believed to have been started by an arsonist Oct. 21 along Santiago CanyonRoad. A $285,000 reward is being offered to anyone who offers information thatleads to a conviction.
Authorities were seeking the driver of a white Ford F-150 pickup truck seen inthe area when the blaze began and were hoping to speak with 35 to 40 people whohad gathered near Black Star Canyon Road and taken pictures and video of thefire in its early stage. “They are not suspects. We just want to talk tothem” and look at any photos or videotape they have, said Orange CountyFire Authority Chief Chip Prather.
Volunteers are trying to reunite with their owners dozens of horses that werehastily evacuated from the canyons. Photographs of some of the horses, which arebeing tended at the Coto De Caza Equestrian Center, can be viewed at www.cacares.stirsite.com.
The nearly 13,000-acre Slide fire was still threatening about 2,500 homes inRunning Springs, Smiley Park and Green Valley Lake, officials said. Nearly 2,000firefighters were trying to extinguish dead trees still burning in the heavytimber around the fire’s perimeter.
In San Diego, Mayor Jerry Sanders told the City Council that he had ordered astudy of the city’s response to the fires that destroyed an estimated 365 homeswithin the city limits.
Sanders praised firefighters, police and innumerable volunteers and cityemployees, concluding that their response “proved we are truly America’sFinest City,” the city’s preferred nickname. At the peak of evacuationefforts, San Diego’s shelters housed 27,086 people at 50 public and privateshelters, officials said.
On Monday, the Internal Revenue Service announced that residents affected by thewildfires would have until Jan. 31 to file federal withholding tax returns andestimated tax payment for the fourth quarter.