3 confirmed dead in waning California wildfires

Firefighters, aided by diminishing winds, were taming a wildfire Saturday that damaged or destroyed more than 30 structures along Los Angeles’s northern edge and sent a blanket of smoke across a swath of neighbourhoods, as three deaths have now been tied to blazes across Southern California.

Officials say the blaze in the city’s San Fernando Valley area hadn’t grown significantly since Friday, and ground crews were tamping down lingering hotspots. However, thousands of people remained under evacuation orders, and authorities warned the potential for flare-ups remained. 

The cause is under investigation.

At the site of another blaze east of Los Angeles, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said a second body was found at a mobile home park where 74 structures were destroyed Thursday in Calimesa. Officials previously reported one death at the community east of Los Angeles.

The department said one of the Calimesa victims has been identified as 89-year-old Lois Arvikson. Her son, Don Turner, said she had called him to say she was evacuating, but he never heard from her again. Authorities are working to identify the other victim.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesperson Brian Humphrey said the bulk of the fire had moved away from homes and into rugged hillsides and canyons where firefighters were making steady progress slowing its advance. Television footage showed plumes of smoke rising from the area, but no walls of towering flame, as a water-dropping helicopter moved in to dump another cascade on the blaze.

One man who tried to fight the blaze died of a heart attack, and one firefighter reported a minor eye injury. 

Los Angeles County firefighters work hot spots in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles. (Sarah Reingewirtz/The Orange County Register/SCNG/The Associated Press)

“The bulk of the fire has moved toward wild land,” Humphrey said.

Firefighters worked under sunny skies, but air quality was poor as smoke dispersed over much of greater Los Angeles. Air quality officials urged people to limit outdoor activities. 

East of Los Angeles, firefighters had also contained 25 per cent of a blaze that ripped through a Riverside County mobile home park, destroying dozens of residences. In Northern California, the lights are back on for 98 per cent of customers who lost power when Pacific Gas & Electric switched it off in an effort to prevent wildfires. 

Some 100,000 residents were ordered out of their homes because of the wind-driven wildfire that broke out Thursday evening in the San Fernando Valley. It spread westward through tinder-dry brush in hilly subdivisions on the outskirts of the nation’s second largest city.

A burned home is seen on Beaufait Avenue in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles on Friday after a wildfire burned thousands of acres during Santa Ana wind conditions. (Sarah Reingewirtz/The Orange County Register/SCNG/The Associated Press)

Interstate 5, the main north-to-south corridor in the state, was shut down for much of the day Friday, choking traffic until finally reopening.

The smoky scent spreading through much of Los Angeles was a reminder of the threat of a fire season just beginning. 

The region has been on high alert as notoriously powerful Santa Ana winds brought dry desert air to a desiccated landscape that only needed a spark to erupt. Fire officials have warned that they expect more intense and devastating California wildfires due, in part, to climate change.

Fire danger remained high for much of Southern California, with warnings in place for large swaths of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties west of Los Angeles. 

The cause of the Los Angeles blaze wasn’t immediately known, though arson investigators said a witness reported seeing sparks or flames coming from a power line near where the fire is believed to have started, said Peter Sanders, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

A Sylmar man, Robert Delgado, said he saw flames under a high-voltage electrical transmission tower near his home at around the time the fire broke out, KABC-TV reported.

Southern California Edison said it owns the transmission tower shown on KABC-TV, but a spokesperson would not confirm that was where the fire began. The utility said it could take a long time to determine the cause and origin of the fire.

Jonathan Stahl was driving home to Valencia when he saw the smoke and immediately diverted to a mobile home park in Sylmar where his grandmother and aunt live together.

The park had been nearly wiped out in 2008 when one of the city’s most destructive fires levelled 500 homes.

Jonathan Stahl, 41, of Valencia, Calif., and his 91-year-old grandmother Beverly Stahl of the Sylmar area of Los Angeles, pose at the evacuation centre. (Stefanie Dazio/The Associated Press)

Stahl helped his grandmother, Beverly Stahl, 91, who was in her pyjamas, and his aunt to pack clothing, medication and take their two dogs. They saw flames in the distance as they drove away.

“We just packed up what we could as fast as we could,” Stahl said at an evacuation centre at the Sylmar Recreation Centre, massaging his grandmother’s shoulders as she sat in a wheelchair with a Red Cross blanket on her lap. “If we’d stuck around, we would have been in trouble. Real big trouble.”

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