Firefighters reported progress today against a gigantic blaze on the edge of Los Angeles that might herald even greater dangers ahead.
The peak Southern California fire season has not even started yet and the worst fires typically flare up in the autumn, when ferocious Santa Ana winds can drive blazes out of wilderness areas and into suburbs..
“When you see a fire burning like this, with no Santa Ana winds, we know that with the winds, it would be so much worse, so much more intense,” said Los Angeles County fire captain Mark Whaling.
The Santa Anas are so devastating when they carry fire because they sweep down from the north and reach withering speeds as they squeeze through wilderness canyons and then plunge into developed areas.
Even though winds have been mostly calm since the blaze began along the northern fringe of Los Angeles and its suburbs, the flames have spread over nearly 200 square miles of forest in a week.
Citing new damage assessments, officials raised the number of destroyed homes from 53 to 62 but said the number of homes remaining under mandatory evacuation orders was reduced by 300 to 6,000.
Up to 12,000 homes were considered threatened at the height of the fire, though not all were ordered evacuated. One of the threatened houses was the home where the movie ET was filmed.
But it was not the only significant blaze in Southern California.
In the inland region east of Los Angeles, 2,000 homes were being threatened by a fire of more than 1.5 square miles in the San Bernardino County community of Oak Glen, and a nearby 1.3-square-mile blaze was putting 900 homes at risk in Yucaipa.
“There’s action everywhere,” governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in San Bernardino County.
Containment of the big fire, known as the Station Fire, rose to 22%. US Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich said he felt better but was not willing to say a corner had been turned.
“Right now if I were in a boxing match I’d think we’re even today,” Mr Dietrich said.
Weather was more humid, which helps brush resist burning, but the downside was a possibility of dry lightning. Some sprinkles were reported, but no significant rain.
Officials were worried about the threat to a historic observatory and TV, radio and other antennas on Mount Wilson north east of Los Angeles. But yesterday firefighters set backfires near the facilities before a giant Second World War-era seaplane-turned air tanker made a huge water drop on flames below the peak.
The fire was still moving towards Mount Wilson, but Mr Dietrich said he was confident that any damage would be minimised.
The cash-strapped state has spent more than half of its emergency firefighting fund, and was hoping to get government assistance to ease the burden.
The Station Fire was the biggest but not the most destructive of the wildfires currently burning in California. North east of Sacramento, a fire burning over a half square mile destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn. The fire was 80% contained today and no longer threatened any homes.