Firefighters battling 2-week-old wildfire north of LA count on help from shifting winds

Tuesday, September 19th 2006, 8:36 am
By: News On 6

OJAI, Calif. (AP) _ Erratic winds pushed a stubborn, two-week-old wildfire toward a rural community in the Los Padres National Forest, threatening about 170 people living in scattered ranch homes near the northern edge of the blaze.

The fire has scorched more than 125 square miles, or 80,111 acres, of chaparral and timber since it was ignited Labor Day by someone burning debris in the forest, 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It was 15 percent contained late Monday, said Bruce Emmens, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The fire doubled in size over the weekend, fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds. But a cool, moist ocean breeze slowed the fire and put communities that were still several miles away out of immediate danger.

Counting on help from shifting winds, teams of firefighters trekked into the remote forest to carve fire lines in an effort to prevent flames from roaring toward several mountain communities, including Ojai, an artists' enclave popular with tourists.

At one point, the blaze crept within 12 miles of Ojai. Authorities had advised precautionary evacuation of about 350 homes in the area over the weekend, but the threat had been ``greatly reduced'' by Monday, said U.S. Forest Service Capt. Mark Whaling.

``It never came down into the communities like we feared it might. We didn't have the winds we were expecting,'' he said.

More than 2,100 firefighters hoped to take advantage of the break in the weather, which was expected to last until the middle of the week.

The fire, which has cost nearly $18 million to fight, scorched a condor sanctuary in part of the Sespe Wilderness, and state Fish and Game officials were closely watching a condor fledgling that hatched in May. The bird was last seen Friday in a high, rocky area that was not in imminent danger, officials said.

Meanwhile, firefighters took control of two desert wildfires eight miles apart, which forced the temporary evacuation of about 2,500 residents over the weekend. Two homes were destroyed by one of those blazes.