2,000 Homes Evacuated In California Wildfires

Firefighters pass in front of a backfire lighted to try to contain the Sierra Fire, near Anaheim, Calif. Firefighters reported limited progress in battling the wildfire.
Firefighters pass in front of a backfire lighted to try to contain the Sierra Fire, near Anaheim, Calif. Firefighters reported limited progress in battling the wildfire. (By Ed Crisostomo -- Riverside Press-enterprise Via Associated Press)

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By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 7 -- A huge wildfire burned out of control in Southern California on Tuesday, causing the temporary evacuation of 2,000 homes and the closure of four schools, and a federal forest official said it may have started as a prescribed burn that escaped.

Cleveland National Forest Fire Chief Rich Hawkins said a fire had been set on a 10-acre area last Thursday, when no Santa Ana winds were predicted for five days. Tree roots can continue to burn underground if too little water is applied, but when foresters saw no smoke two days later, they thought the fire was out.

"We believe the fire was burning underground," Hawkins said. "We're feeling bad about that, but we're sure glad no homes were burned and no lives were lost. We're thankful for that."

Hawkins said about 70,000 prescribed burns are peformed annually nationwide and that fewer than 0.2 percent escape.

"There were civilians spotted in the area between 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning [Monday], so our investigators say they're still looking at that. So there is a remote chance they could come back later and say it was arson," Hawkins said. "But I was confident enough that I thought the truth needed to be known."

As of Tuesday night, the fire had consumed 6,520 acres and was 10 percent contained, said Dennis Shell, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority.Firefighters battled successfully to prevent the blaze from jumping a toll road into the wealthy Orange County hillside communities of Anaheim Hills and Orange.

"We're hot, we are dry, the vegetation is dry," Shell said. "The Santa Anas are causing real problems for us this week." But he said the job of more than 900 firefighters was made easier because homeowners in the threatened communities had cleared much of the brush from around their homes, and many of the houses have noncombustible roofs.

Traffic was snarled on a main highway carrying commuters from inland Riverside County to work in Orange and Los Angeles counties after the toll road at the edge of the burning area was closed, California Highway Patrol officials said. Brown smoke, visible as far as 30 miles away in downtown Los Angeles, filled the air. School officials canceled recess and sporting events because of poor air quality. And although people were allowed to return to their homes, authorities said they may have to be evacuated again if the fire edges closer.

The hot, dry winds were forecast to continue until Thursday, and fire officials predicted it would be days before the fire could be put out. Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said a La Niña weather pattern has kept rain to the north of Los Angeles and prompted more frequent winds, which usually blow only in the fall.

Wildfires have always been a feature of life in Southern California, but the impact on local communities has increased in recent years as suburban sprawl brings houses closer to those wild areas that remain.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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