Fanned by wind, stubborn Southern California wildfire doubles in size outside Los Angeles

Monday, September 18th 2006, 6:27 am
By: News On 6

OJAI, Calif. (AP) _ Firefighters battling a stubborn, two-week-old wildfire that scorched more than 116 square miles of wilderness along the Los Angeles-Ventura County line were counting on help from shifting winds Monday.

The largest of three Southern California blazes doubled in size when it was fanned by gusty winds over the weekend. But a cool, moist ocean breeze Sunday night slowed the fire and put communities out of immediate danger.

Authorities had advised precautionary evacuations over the weekend.

The most recent forecast called for northwest winds of 15 mph to 20 mph with a shift to cooler onshore breezes.

``If the wind shifts as predicted ... it could cool things a bit,'' said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Joe Pasinato.

The fire has burned 74,052 acres since Labor Day and was 15 percent contained. Meanwhile, two desert wildfires forced the temporary evacuation of about 2,500 residents. One fire was contained, the other 90 percent contained. Two homes were destroyed in one of the desert fires.

While no one was injured and no homes were lost in the largest fire, the blaze that has remained largely in the Los Padres National Forest crept within 12 miles of the artists' enclave of Ojai, about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The blaze was about seven miles north of Fillmore and 10 miles northeast of Santa Paula.

On Monday, firefighters moved equipment and personnel to the fire's western boundary and worked to set up a helicopter base to attack the blaze from the air. Crews also planned to drive up a hillside and hike a few miles inward, where they would use hand tools to cut fire lines and prevent the blaze from moving into populated areas.

More than 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, which was ignited by someone burning debris.

Officials had advised the evacuation of about 350 homes in Upper Ojai, Matilija Canyon and Wheeler Gorge areas as a precaution, said Sgt. Tim Hagel of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

Ninety students cleared out of an Ojai Valley boarding school near the fire.

``It was a voluntary evacuation, but they were urged to leave,'' said Peter Cavalho, a supervisor of maintenance at Ojai Valley Schools Upper Campus.

Meanwhile, in Montana, a weekend storm dumped as much as 2 inches of rain on two wildfires, dramatically slowing their growth. Fire managers said they expect to wrap up most firefighting efforts Tuesday.

One fire, 20 miles southeast of Livingston, has burned about 29,000 acres, or 45 square miles. It blew up on Wednesday, destroying two cabins plus a shop. It was 50 percent contained.

The other fire, 15 miles south of Big Timber, has burned 208,096 acres and 26 homes since it began with a lightning strike Aug. 22. It was considered 85 percent contained.