US firefighters hope weather will help battle wildfires

A 16,200-acre wildfire burned out of control early today in the hills and canyons along Los Angeles’ northwestern edge, despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters who held out hope that the weather was on their side.

A 16,200-acre wildfire burned out of control early today in the hills and canyons along Los Angeles’ northwestern edge, despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters who held out hope that the weather was on their side.

Mike Bryant, Los Angeles County Fire Department incident chief, said firefighters wanted to “throw every available resource we have” at the fire to take advantage of cooler temperatures and receding winds.

“Today is a very critical day for us,” he said on NBC’s Today television show. A new system was forecast in the coming days that could again whip up the flames, he added.

Some 3,000 firefighters aided by four aircraft releasing retardant and 11 helicopters dropping water attacked flames and protected ridgetop homes amid the brushy landscape west of the San Fernando Valley, California. By early today, the blaze was just 5% contained.

Hundreds of people evacuated since the fire broke out on Wednesday, with the flames destroying at least one home and five other structures. Smoke in the valley was so thick that cars drove with lights on in the afternoon.

The fire moved west much of the day, menacing Ventura County, California, communities, then sent flanks in the opposite direction as winds shifted.

“If it wasn’t for the wind changing, it would have … gone all the way to the coast,” said Joey Escobar, 45, who was among a group of people who gathered to watch the flames near Highway 101. “It’s like a fireplace.”

Temperatures were in the high 90s (more than 30 degrees Celsius) and conditions were dry through most of the day. But winds were relatively light and the forecast called for cooler temperatures.

Last night, long lines of fire marched east toward the wealthy enclave of Hidden Hills, California, and the western fringes of Los Angeles.

Mandatory or voluntary evacuations were in effect for homes scattered throughout the canyons and in parts of area cities along the south side of the fire and 10 miles north to Simi Valley, California.

Firefighters have saved some 2,000 structures from the flames, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

Fire also spread to parts of the 2,800-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory - where everything from space rockets to Peacekeeper missiles was built over the past half century. Officials there cancelled what was to be the lab’s final rocket test because of the blaze; about 200 employees were evacuated.

Several abandoned and inactive structures at the site were destroyed, said Dan Beck, a spokesman for Boeing Co., which is doing an environmental clean-up at the site. It was unclear how much acreage had been blackened.

About 600 people registered with the Red Cross yesterday but it was not known how many would actually spend the night at the five shelters opened in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, said spokesman Nick Samaniego.

Actor Shelley Berman of the television series Curb Your Enthusiasm and his Bell Canyon neighbours evacuated, taking a few items from the home he has lived in since 1984.

“We were sitting watching television, had finished a nice dinner, everything was fine. … Then suddenly, we were moving,” said Berman, who went with his wife to a friend’s house a few miles away in Westlake, California.

One other large wildfire in Southern California was 100% contained after burning 1,160 acres in San Timoteo Canyon between Redlands and Moreno Valley in Riverside County. No homes were destroyed.

The fire began at a chicken farm when welding equipment inside one of the coops accidentally sparked, fire officials said. More than 80,000 chickens - nearly half of those at the farm – were killed.

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