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UPDATED: Ventura fire 40 percent contained; cause under investigation

Initial report of spontaneous combustion in manure not confirmed

Posted: September 22, 2009 3:56 p.m.
Updated: September 24, 2009 11:00 a.m.

A firefighter with the Montebello Fire Department keeps watch over a wildfire as it burns near Fillmore, Calif. on Tuesday.

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Thursday, Sept. 24 11 a.m. update:

MOORPARK, Calif. (AP) -- A fleet of helicopters made water drops as bulldozers carved firebreaks Thursday to stop a 25-square-mile wildfire burning through an agricultural region of Southern California.

High heat and very low humidity kept fire danger high even though meteorologists said the dry Santa Ana winds that spread the flames through rural Ventura County were weakening.

The 16,400-acre blaze northwest of Los Angeles was 40 percent surrounded, and the effort to increase containment involved 21 helicopters, 21 bulldozers, 214 fire engines and 1,800 firefighters. Eight air tankers were also available.

"It's a full attack," said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash.

Winds were ranging between 6 mph and 12 mph, about half the speeds of the previous day, he said. But triple-digit temperatures persisted along with relative humidity levels in single digits.

The fire erupted Tuesday north of the city of Moorpark and has spread and west through hills, mountains and agricultural lands, including avocado orchards. Two outbuildings have been destroyed and 75 homes, along with oil production sites and electrical transmission lines, remained threatened.

Efforts were being focused on the northeast corner of the fire, where helicopters were making drops with water taken out of the Santa Clara River, Nash said.

Eight injuries have been reported, none serious, he said.

The fire began near an agricultural mulch pile, but the cause remained under investigation, authorities said.

Firefighting costs topped $3 million.

Elsewhere in Southern California, a 16-year-old boy was arrested for investigation of starting a 475-acre wildfire Wednesday near Yucaipa in San Bernardino County. The fire was 60 percent contained.

The teenager was spotted on a bicycle where the blaze started, said Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Northeast of Los Angeles, the smoldering remnants of a month-old, 251-square-mile forest fire in the San Gabriel Mountains was listed as 94 percent contained, and officials expected to declare it fully surrounded by Thursday evening. Winds in the Angeles National Forest were also milder, but the air remained hot and dry.


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Wednesday, Sept. 23 5:45 p.m. update:

MOORPARK, Calif. (AP) - Firefighters guarded rural homes, ranches and orchards Wednesday as a wind-driven wildfire, dubbed the Guiberson Fire by fire officials, grew to more than 25 square miles on a march through rugged land between small Southern California communities.

The fire was stoked by hot and dry Santa Ana winds but firefighters said the windspeeds were lower than on the first day of the blaze.

Containment of the fire, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, also increased to 40 percent, but it was not expected to be fully surrounded until Saturday. Firefighters cut and burned away brush along a canyon road to try to corral part of the fire's western flank.

Fire officials said the blaze began Tuesday in the area of an agricultural mulch pile, but the cause remained under investigation. The Sheriff's Department earlier said it was apparently caused by spontaneous combustion in manure.

Winds and fuels such as grasses and light brush made the fire dangerous, said incident commander Robert Lewin.

"Our firefighters need to be on guard, make sure they're out of harm's way when they're engaged in this fire, and so do the citizens," he said.

About 1,000 homes were considered threatened as the fire burned east and west just north of Moorpark, a city of 37,000. The 15,000-student Moorpark College was closed because of its proximity to the fire.

Reverse 911 calls recommending evacuations were made to 2,200 phones in unincorporated areas, but officials couldn't say how many people actually left.

One of those calls went to the home of school bus driver Maria Kadowaki in Somis, west of Moorpark.

"I wasn't too frightened but my husband freaked out," she said. "He ran outside and started watering the garage in the dark."

They chose not to leave their home, and Wednesday afternoon she and another driver were out checking which roads would be open or closed when they took children home after school.

Two outbuildings were destroyed but no homes had been damaged.

The fire was also threatening agricultural properties, a major concern in a county where the industry was valued at $1.6 billion last year.

"There are very, very valuable avocado groves and other agricultural values out there, and we are doing everything we can to protect those," Lewin said.

Helicopters dumped water on flames moving toward orchards and ground crews put out burning shrubbery at the edges of groves. County fire Capt. Ron Oatman said the fire likely had burned some peripheral trees but agricultural damage had not been confirmed.

Firefighters were also concerned about five major electrical transmission lines, a 36-inch natural gas pipeline and oil production fields within the fire perimeter, he said.

Firefighting costs surpassed $1 million as nearly 900 firefighters, 18 air tankers and 12 helicopters worked the blaze. Four injuries were reported but all were minor.

The blaze was the largest of several fires that erupted in Southern California on Tuesday as the Santa Anas blew in from the northeast, pushing back the normal flow of cool and moist ocean air.

Forecasters said weak Santa Anas would continue until Friday.

During a calm period early Wednesday, Marieke Lexmond stood with her dog Flynn and recalled the scary rush of fire and smoke past her rented Balcom Canyon home.

"It was a serious wind and the fire came out of the hills and it was burned out in 30 minutes," she said.

Lexmond and neighbors gathered horses into a corral in preparation for evacuation.

"We have the cars packed and we are ready to go. When it comes this close, you don't care. You take your passport and papers and animals and go," Lexmond said.

An animal evacuation center at the county fairgrounds had 136 horses, three donkeys, three pigs, two goats and a lamb.

Elsewhere in California, a fire that burned close to homes in the Riverside County city of Norco was just a black scar on the land by Wednesday morning, with no smoke or flames apparent.

Meanwhile, the hot, dry and windy weather increased fire activity northeast of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains, where remnants of the month-old, 251-square-mile Station Fire are still smoldering. A 20-acre spot fire in was held in check by air drops of retardant, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Completion of containment lines around the giant blaze was expected Thursday, the service said. The fire destroyed 89 homes and caused two firefighter deaths in August.

A 300-acre wildfire burning in a heavily wooded area of Sonoma County near Geyserville was 90 percent surrounded, with full containment expected Thursday.

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Wednesday, Sept. 23 1:15 p.m. update:

More than 864 firefighters are battling a fire that started south of Fillmore and is burning toward Moorpark, according to Ventura County Fire Department officials.

The Guiberson Fire has burned 9,700 acres so far, is growing, and is 20 percent contained.

Four firefighters have sustained minor injuries.

There are 84 fire engines, 12 helicopters, eight air tankers, 18 fire hand crews and nine bulldozers battling the blaze. Additional resources will be ordered as necessary.

Highway 23 between Fillmore and Moorpark, Walnut Canyon and Spring Road remain closed.

See the links in "Related Content" for the latest maps and incident details including evacuation information for people and animals.

-- Stephen K. Peeples, Signal Online Editor

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Wednesday, Sept. 23 10:09 a.m. update:

MOORPARK, Calif. (AP) - A wildfire burning in Southern California's Ventura County has grown to 9,700 acres.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Wednesday the 15-square-mile blaze north of Moorpark and south of Fillmore is now 20 percent contained.

Dubbed the Guiberson Fire because it started on W. Guiberson Road south of Fillmore, the fire is expected to be surrounded by Saturday.

Two outbuildings have been destroyed but no homes have been damaged.

The fire erupted Tuesday as hot, dry and gusty Santa Ana winds swept into Southern California. Weather on the fire lines is expected to include gusts to 30 mph, highs up to 104 degrees and humidity levels as low as 3 percent.

A statement from the incident command team says the fire began in the area of a mulch pile and is under investigation.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

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Wednesday, Sept. 23 early morning update:

MOORPARK, Calif. (AP) - An 8,500-acre wildfire continues to churn through rugged hills and mountains of Southern California's Ventura County, but some areas are experiencing a lull in winds.

Firefighters guarded ranch and agricultural properties on the active west flank of the fire Wednesday morning. None appeared in imminent danger.

Firefighters expect winds to pick up again and consider 1,000 homes and 20 commercial buildings threatened.

A DC-10 jumbo jet converted into an air tanker has returned to the blaze and dropped an enormous load of fire retardant on vegetation.

The fire erupted Tuesday between the cities of Fillmore and Moorpark as hot, dry and gusty Santa Ana winds pushed through Southern California.

The gusts also fanned smaller fires east of Los Angeles.

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Tuesday, Sept. 22 at deadline:

Santa Anas drive Ventura County blaze


By Jessica Selva, Signal Staff Writer

Los Angeles County firefighters from local stations joined in battling a Santa Ana wind-whipped wildfire that began in Fillmore on Tuesday and threatened Moorpark, fire officials said.

The blaze began as much of the region is under a red-flag fire warning due to high temperatures and winds combined with low humidity.

Though smoke could be seen from the Santa Clarita Valley, Ventura County Fire Department officials said they did not expect the fire to move into the valley.

The blaze, which started at East Guiberson Road near Shiells Canyon Road in Fillmore, spread over 6,000 acres - more than nine square miles - threatening the northwestern area of the city of Moorpark, said Ventura County fire spokesman Bill Nash.

Evacuations were ordered for scattered ranches and homes. Fire Capt. Ron Oatman couldn't provide a specific number but said many homes and power lines were threatened. At least one small building was burned.

The fire was believed to have been ignited by spontaneous combustion of manure at a ranch, a Sheriff's Department statement said.

Temperatures topped 100 degrees and humidity fell to single digits while winds gusted to 30 mph Tuesday, Nash said.

"Those are all the ingredients you need to make a fast-moving fire," he said.

Helitankers and a DC-10 jumbo jet bombarded the flames with retardant and water while hundreds of firefighters worked on the ground. Two minor injuries to firefighters were reported.

City spokesman Hugh Riley said the local water district authorized avocado growers to turn on irrigation sprinklers in their orchards to try to preserve them. He noted that the fire was following the path of a blaze several years ago.

"That was a big one, and fortunately it burned a lot of the fuel that could feed this one," he said.

Santa Clarita Valley winds were blowing at 15 to 25 mph Tuesday with some winds gusting at 40 mph, said National Weather Service specialist Stuart Seto. Fillmore winds were blowing from 15 to 25 mph with some winds gusting to 35 mph and a few isolated winds reaching up to 50 miles per hour, he added.

"Santa Clarita recreational area and the Santa Monica mountains are under a red-flag warning until 6 p.m. Thursday," Seto said. Fillmore's red-flag warning is expected to end by 9 p.m. Thursday, he added.

While lower winds help lessen the chance of fires, Seto said the weather will still contribute to hazardous fire conditions because of continued low humidity.

Newhall temperatures reached a high of 106 degrees Tuesday. Wednesday's Newhall temperatures are expected to reach 102 degrees before they go down slightly through the rest of the week, reaching the mid-90s by Sunday, Seto said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 22:
MOORPARK, Calif. (AP) - A fire headed for Moorpark on Tuesday was visible from the Santa Clarita Valley, but was not headed this way, authorities said.

New wildfires threaten homes in Southern California today as hot and dry Santa Ana winds turn the region into a tinder box.

A wind-driven blaze in rural hills of Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles quickly grew to 1,500 acres, threatening the northwestern area of the city of Moorpark, said county fire Capt. Ron Oatman.

Evacuations were ordered for scattered ranches and homes. Oatman couldn't provide a specific number but said numerous homes and electrical infrastructure were threatened. One small building was seen ablaze.

"Don't wait for an evacuation order if you feel like you're in danger," he said.

Air tankers, helitankers and bulldozers aided 400 firefighters. The weather was hot, with sustained winds of 15 mph to 20 mph and single-digit humidity percentages, Oatman said.

Another fire broke out in Riverside County, 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and burned from the city of Riverside into the city of Norco and toward adjacent Corona before nearing containment at 120 to 150 acres, said Norco Fire Chief Jack Frye. Flames burned near homes, but none were lost despite gusts of up to 45 mph, he said.

Flames were whipped by the region's notorious Santa Ana winds, which blow from the northeast, speeding up and warming as they descend through mountain passes and canyons and push seaward. The air is extremely dry, lowering humidity levels and making brush easier to burn.

Gusts of 30 mph to 40 mph were reported in Southern California's mountains, the National Weather Service said.

The Santa Anas also whipped up clouds of ash north and east of Los Angeles in the vast area of the San Gabriel Mountains burned over by a gigantic wildfire that continues to smolder a month after it began.

The winds caused some increased fire activity on ridgetops in the San Gabriels, but the haze was from blowing ash, not smoke columns, said Carol Underhills, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire burned across 160,557 acres - 251 square miles - of Angeles National Forest after it was ignited by arson on Aug. 26. At its peak it destroyed 89 homes and caused two firefighter deaths.

The blaze chewed through heavy growth in areas that hadn't burned in decades, leaving a carpet of ash in about a quarter of the 1,000-square-mile forest north and east of Los Angeles.

The fire remained 94 percent surrounded Tuesday, and fire commanders again pushed back the projected date for full containment, this time from Tuesday evening to Thursday morning, due to the weather.

Most of the remaining fire activity in the Angeles forest has been on the north side of Mount Wilson, the antenna-studded peak towering over suburban Pasadena and Sierra Madre, and in the Twin Peaks area on the east side of the fire, Underhills said.

The weather service also issued "red flag" warnings of fire weather conditions in other parts of California due to a combination of low humidity, high temperatures and wind.

Those areas included the hills east of San Francisco Bay and mountains to the north, the northern Sierra and northern Sacramento Valley and a large swath of the state farther north.

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