California wildfires growing, devastating homes
LANCASTER, Calif. (AP) - Nearly 3,000 people from some 700 homes were under evacuation orders Monday as a wildfire north of Los Angeles kept growing, feeding on old, dry brush, some of which hadn't burned in decades.
The blaze had burned about 35 square miles in the mountains and canyons of the Angeles National Forest, destroying at least six homes and damaging 15 more.
The fire, which was 20 percent contained, was fueled in part by chaparral that was "extremely old and dry" and hadn't burned since 1929, U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Norm Walker said Sunday at a news conference.
It was spreading fastest into unoccupied land, but populated areas about 50 miles north of downtown LA remained in danger, with more than 2,800 people and 700 homes under evacuation orders that were expected to last until late Monday or Tuesday in the communities of Lake Hughes and Lake Elizabeth, sheriff's Lt. David Coleman said.
It appeared to be the fiercest of several burning in the West, including two in New Mexico, where thick smoke covered several communities and set a blanket of haze over Santa Fe. Crews fighting the two uncontained wildfires focused Sunday on building protection lines around them, hoping predicted storms could bring moisture to help reduce the intensity of the fires.
In Southern California, about 2,100 firefighters were taking on the wildfire, aided by water-dropping aircraft, including three helicopters expected to stay aloft through the night.
"We're putting everything that we have into this," Walker said.
The cause of the fire was under investigation. Three firefighters had minor injuries, but no one else was hurt.
Winds of about 25 mph and gusting as high as 40 mph had created "havoc" for firefighters for much of Sunday, LA County Deputy Chief David Richardson said.
Propelled by the strong winds, the fire jumped an aqueduct into the west of Lancaster, officials said.
Nightfall brought some weather relief, and firefighters hope they could take advantage of it.
"It is cooling off," Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said. "The winds have died down, at least compared to earlier."
In a report early Monday, fire officials said that the blaze was holding and no new evacuations or road closures were immediately foreseen.
At least six homes had burned to the ground, and 15 more were scorched by flames, LA County fire Chief Daryl L. Osby said.
George Ladd, 61, said among them was a cabin at Lake Hughes his family had owned since 1954, but sold just last week. He said he expected it may go up in flames sooner.
"We had always worried about that thing going off like a bomb," Ladd said.
He walked through the ashes of his former cabin and the other destroyed homes Sunday.
"All of them are nothing," he said by phone from his home in nearby Palmdale later Sunday night. "A few scraps, a few pieces of wood with nails sticking out, but mostly just broken up concrete."
Mark Wadsworth, 64, said he was confident his house in Lake Elizabeth survived. He spent Sunday parked in his truck atop a ridge, watching plumes of smoke rise from the canyons below.
"I've got nowhere to go, so I'm just waiting for them to open the roads again and let me back in," Wadsworth said.
In New Mexico, a fire burning in Santa Fe National Forest 25 miles from Santa Fe had grown to nearly 12 square miles by Sunday evening, causing thick smoke to cover parts of Gallinas Canyon and Las Vegas, N.M.
The fire near the communities of Pecos and Tres Lagunas had prompted the evacuations of about 140 homes, most of them summer residences.
Crews also cleared out campgrounds and closed trailheads in the area as they worked to prevent the fire from moving toward the capital city's watershed and more populated areas.
Another New Mexico blaze, the Thompson Ridge fire near Jemez Springs, grew to nearly 3 square miles.
Forty to 50 homes that were evacuated late last week remained so on Sunday.
Forestry service officials say neither blaze and destroyed any homes, but one house suffered minor damage.
For California evacuees, the Red Cross opened centers in Lancaster and Palmdale, where about 150 residents awaited word on when they could return home.
A huge plume of smoke could be seen from much of northern Los Angeles County, and air-quality officials warned against strenuous outdoor activity.
The blaze broke out Thursday just north of Powerhouse No. 1, a hydroelectric plant near the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The wilderness area is a draw for boaters, campers and hikers. Crews and residents were being warned to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and bears that could be displaced by flames.
Evacuations remained in effect for several campgrounds and two youth probation camps. Several roads and trails were closed.