California not out of fire danger from lingering winds

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Santa Ana winds were expected to linger for a final day Thursday after driving more than a dozen wildfires through California, sending thousands fleeing and burning nearly up to the walls of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Firefighters managed to tamp down or at least partially corral fires that for the past few days surged through tinder-dry brush in both the north and south, destroying dozens of homes.

But much of Los Angeles and Ventura counties remained under a National Weather Service red flag warning of extreme fire danger through Thursday evening because of bone-dry humidity and the chance of winds gusting to 70 mph (112 kph) in the mountains.

A brushfire that broke out before dawn Wednesday between the cities of Simi Valley and Moorpark north of Los Angeles quickly exploded in size and prompted officials to order about 30,000 people to evacuate, although some were being allowed back home Wednesday night as fire crews began to get a handle on the blaze.

Crews remained through the night to make sure embers weren’t blown back into flame.

Throughout the day, an army of firefighters helped protect the hilltop Reagan museum, and helicopters hit the flames, which came within about 30 yards (27 meters) of the property and left the library sitting like an island in a soot-black sea. A team of goats is brought in annually to chew away vegetation and create a firebreak around the museum.

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There was no damage, library spokeswoman Melissa Giller said.

Nearby residents had little time to heed evacuation orders as the flames approached.

Elena Mishkanian was able to gather only some basics. Her son, Troy, 13, netted six pet fish from a tank and put them in pots.

“Fish have feelings!” he said when his sister Megan teased him about it.

Frightened horses screamed in a nearby barn as Beth Rivera used a garden hose to water down the edges of her home to keep embers from igniting dry grass and trees. Friends helped evacuate 11 horses.

The cause was not yet determined, but Southern California Edison filed a report with state regulators to say it began near its power lines. Electrical equipment has sparked some of California’s worst wildfires in recent years and prompted utilities to resort to precautionary power outages. SoCal Edison had not cut power in the area at the time this fire started.

Another wildfire Wednesday forced the evacuation of two mobile home parks and a psychiatric nursing care facility in Jurupa Valley, 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, where elderly people wearing face masks and wrapped in blankets were taken out in wheelchairs and gurneys as smoke swirled overhead. The blaze grew to 200 acres in size before its forward spread was stopped.

“There was one moment when I could see nothing but dark smoke and I was like, ‘We’re going to die,’” said Qiana McCracken, assistant director of nursing for the Riverside Heights Healthcare Center.

As winds buffeted the state this week, utilities deliberately cut power to more than a million people to prevent high winds from damaging power lines and sparking wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which has staged three sweeping blackouts this week, restored power to hundreds of thousands of people Wednesday and expected to have it back for the others sometime Thursday.

The waves of days-long outages have been angrily condemned by state officials and consumers.

PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged hardships but said outages will be necessary in the future as seasonal fire threats increase.

“As long as they remain the best tool that we have to keep people safe, and our communities safe, they’re the tool we will use,” he said.

PG&E equipment that wasn’t de-energized may have ignited a massive blaze in Sonoma County wine country that has destroyed 133 homes.

Firefighters reported making significant progress as high winds in the area eased Wednesday and the fire was 45 percent contained.

Southern California Edison said its safety power cuts still affected about 215,000 people by late Wednesday night and warned that outages were under consideration for about 800,000 people.

Yet fire crews managed to make good progress against most blazes. A fire that erupted Monday in the wealthy Brentwood area of Los Angeles, burning a dozen homes, was reduced to hot spots and evacuation orders were lifted for most of the thousands who had been told to flee.

The days of windstorms are not unusual for the fall season, which has seen vicious gusts propel a series of deadly and destructive California wildfires in recent years.

But at least in the short term, there was good news from forecasters.

“This is the last event in our near future. We are not expecting any Santa Anas next week,” weather service meteorologist Kristen Stewart said.

But she noted the forecast only extends out seven days.

“Once we get past that, all bets are off,” she said.

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