Returning winds have Southern California firefighters wary

(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A firefighter battles a fire along the Ronald Reagan Freeway, aka state Highway 118, in Simi Valley, Calif., Monday, Nov. 12. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

With Santa Ana winds returning and hundreds of homes in ashes, firefighters were struggling to corral a devastating Southern California wildfire that has ravaged scenic canyons and celebrity enclaves near the ocean.

Crews taking advantage of a weekend lull in the winds had the immense Woolsey blaze about 30 percent contained. But at least 435 buildings had burned — most of them homes — and the hot embers smoldering there could become the sparks for more devastation, fire officials said.

The fire, which stretches from north of Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean, was only 30 percent contained — although that was significant progress from only a few days earlier thanks to a weekend lull in Santa Ana winds.

Fire crews had to stamp out two new blazes on Monday while still working to corral the hot western and eastern sides of the fire, which had burned its way through drought-stricken canyonlands in and around Malibu, burning celebrity houses along with modest mobile homes.

The hot, dry gusty winds were expected to blow through Wednesday, although not quite as furiously as last week. Winds, coupled with higher average annual temperatures, tinder-dry brush and a lack of rain in recent years, make the “perfect ingredients” for explosive fire growth around the state, said Chris Anthony, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“I’ve been doing this job for 31 years and probably in the last five, maybe seven years, every year seems to get worse,” California Fire Chief Scott Jalbert told The Associated Press.

The fire has burned more than 80 percent of National Parks Service land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, officials said.

Fire officials lifted some evacuation orders Monday in Los Angeles County while warning Southern California residents to remain vigilant as strong winds fanned new fires. While some returned home, others were told to leave. As one major freeway reopened, another was closed.

The return to normal for some was juxtaposed with the arrival of chaos for others, illustrating how quickly conditions can turn. At least 57,000 homes were still considered threatened, state fire officials said, and more than 200,000 people remained under evacuation orders.

Relief and heartache awaited those who were allowed to return home Monday. Paul Rasmussen, his pregnant wife and 6-year-old daughter fled their mountainside Malibu home Friday for what they thought would be the last time.

Paul Rasmussen gasped Monday as he rounded corners on the road home that revealed the extent of damage with more than a dozen nearby houses reduced to rubble. But their home survived. His next-door neighbor, Randy Berkeley, protected his home and the Rasmussens’ house.

Berkeley and his wife, Robyn Berkeley, choked back tears as they recounted their ordeal holding back a 100-foot wall of flames and then repeatedly beating back hot spots that continued to flare up throughout the night and next day.

The couple and their 25-year-old son, Colin, used hoses, buckets of water and chain saws to battle flames and cut back brush as the fire kept coming to life.

“Just when you think everything is dying down, everything keeps coming back,” Randy Berkeley said.

The death toll stood at two, a pair of adults found last week in a car overtaken by flames a couple miles from Rasmussen’s house. Those fatalities added to California’s growing wildfire-related death toll.

At least 42 people were confirmed dead in the wildfire that obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise , making it the deadliest wildfire in recorded state history. The search for bodies continued.

The cause of the Southern California fires remained under investigation.

Southern California Edison reported to the California Public Utilities Commission “out of an abundance of caution” that there was an outage on an electrical circuit near where the fire started Thursday. The report said there was no indication its equipment was involved in the fire reported two minutes after the outage.

Downed powerlines and blown transformers have been blamed for several of the deadly fires that have burned in recent years.


Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer John Antczak contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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