California firefighters make gains on fires

DIAMOND BAR, Calif. (AP) – Winds were calm Monday, allowing firefighters to make gains on two raging wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of residents to flee.

Gusts from the Santa Ana winds had peaked to more than 70 mph at the height of the fires over the weekend but abated Sunday, and had weakened to about 20 mph by Monday morning, the National Weather Service said.

“It’s wonderful news,” Angela Garbiso, a spokeswoman with the Orange County Fire Authority, said Monday. “When it calms down, it obviously makes it easier for us to handle this massive undertaking.”

The fires that started Thursday night and burned in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, have burned nearly 41,000 acres.

In Orange and Riverside counties, the fires chewed through nearly 29,000 acres and were pushing toward Diamond Bar in Los Angeles county. A major aerial attack on Sunday raised containment to 40 percent.

Meanwhile, a 10,000-acre fire that hit hard in the Sylmar area of northern Los Angeles on Saturday moved into the Placerita Canyon area of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains and was burning vigorously, but well outside the city. It was 40 percent contained.

The Santa Barbara-area fire that swept through tony Montecito has burned 1,940 acres and was 95 percent surrounded Monday.

The cause of all the fires were under investigation, although officials said the Santa Barbara-area was “human-caused,” according to Doug Lannon, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Lannon said the fire started in a Montecito landmark known to be a popular hangout for teenagers. He said it was possible someone was smoking in the brush or started a campfire there. Investigators have set up an anonymous tip line in hopes of getting the public’s help in finding out who started the fire.

Far away from the flames, the smell of smoke pervaded metropolitan Los Angeles. Downtown skyscrapers were silhouettes in an opaque sky and concerns about air quality kept many people indoors. Organizers on Sunday canceled a marathon in suburban Pasadena where 8,000 runners had planned to participate.

Officials warned of another bad air day on Monday and classes were canceled at dozens of schools near the fire zones in Orange County.

Many evacuees began the agonizing process of making their way back to their destroyed homes.

Anxious residents of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, where 484 homes were destroyed by fire early Saturday, were allowed Monday morning to return to inspect their property.