Firefighters Make Gains on Southern California Wildfires

November 18, 2008

Firefighters made progress on extinguishing the fires burning in Southern California yesterday, thanks to reduced wind conditions. To date, three of the five fires have been contained, although more than 44,000 acres have been scorched from Santa Barbara to Anaheim, with at least 1,000 residences destroyed, according to the California Fire Incident Information System.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in the four affected counties and local officials ordered the evacuation of more than 50,000 residents.

Monday morning provided firefighters with the first lull in the fierce Santa Ana winds since the first fire began on Thursday. Last week, strong winds, with near hurricane-force gusts up to 90 mph, fanned the fires. “Sustained winds will continue to weaken as a high pressure system moves east over the Rockies, but forecasters predict continued hot, dry weather,” explained Dr. Tomas Girnius, senior research scientist at AIR Worldwide. “Officials believe that at the most optimistic, the fires will be safely contained by mid-week.”

“Wind gusts peaked to over 70 mph on Saturday, and the hot air flow from inland deserts set numerous high temperature records across California as the fires swept over tinder-dry chaparral — the highly flammable mix of stunted trees and bushes commonly found in Southern California — and brush vegetation,” added Dr. Girnius. “Temperatures are forecast to reach 85 degrees in Los Angeles Monday with low humidity, but wind gusts have weakened to about 20 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures will gradually decrease Tuesday and Wednesday, as a cool moist wind from the ocean will blow over the city. Humidity is also expected to increase in the coming days, which will help slow the fires as the vegetation absorbs the moisture in the air.”

The largest and most dangerous threat was the Freeway Complex Fire, which started at 9 a.m. PST on Saturday near the Santa Ana River in Riverside County. By Monday morning, the fire had burned nearly 30,000 acres in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, destroying nearly 200 homes while threatening thousands more. Firefighters had the fire 60 percent contained, and 29,000 acres had burned as of Tuesday morning.

“The area threatened by the Freeway Complex Fire has various types of residential construction, including stone exteriors and clay barrel roof tiles, both of which perform well during fires,” continued Dr. Girnius. “However, many homes are surrounded by dense vegetation and have no setback. Palm trees in the neighborhood also act as a fuel. Over 26,000 people have been evacuated from the area as the fire continues to rage toward the canyons and hillsides of Diamond Bar, Chino Hills, and Brea. A major aerial effort was launched on Sunday, and officials currently estimate that the fire is 40 percent contained. The cause remains under investigation.”

The Sayre Fire, also of unknown cause, began late Friday in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest on the outskirts of Sylmar, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. As of press time, it was 64 percent contained.

“Fueled by dry brush vegetation and high wind gusts, a wall of flames burned across the hillside through over 10,000 acres,” said Dr. Girnius. “The most extensive loss occurred in the Oak Ridge Mobile Home Park, where about 500 high-end mobile homes were destroyed in the gated community. The blaze jumped the 210 and 5 freeways and closed them to traffic for parts of Saturday. In an ironic twist, the charred aftermath of last month’s Sesnon Fire abruptly ended the westward progress of the Sayre Fire, forcing it north into the Santa Clarita Valley. The Sayre Fire was 40% contained by Monday morning.”

Lastly, The Tea Fire began around sundown last Thursday in the town of Montecito, about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara County. “The Tea Fire destroyed 210 residences, including many multimillion dollar homes, and burned over 1,900 acres. The fire was contained as of Tuesday morning. The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, although officials have reported that the fire was “human-caused.”

Over the weekend, the fires downed two of the five major electricity lines running from the San Fernando Valley into Los Angeles, causing intermittent power outages to some of the area’s residents. In addition, as families hosed down their residences before evacuating, water pressure levels dropped in some areas, threatening the efforts of the firefighters. Officials are also concerned that the Tea Fire may have contaminated the water supply in the Montecito area because water pipes are located in the path of the fire. Thick smoke from the Freeway Complex Fire settled over Los Angeles on Sunday, causing concerns about the air quality. Dozens of schools have canceled classes in Orange County, and a marathon in Pasadena was canceled on Sunday.

“The Freeway Complex, Sayre and Tea Fires come just a year after a series of 30 wildfires devastated California in October 2007, causing about $2 billion in damage,” said Dr. Girnius

Sources: AIR Worldwide, National Interagency Coordination Center

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