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UPDATED: Downed power line sparked wildfire

Sesnon Fire has burned 13,285 acres burned

Posted: October 14, 2008 9:40 p.m.
Updated: December 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.

An Erickson Sky Crane drops a load of water near the crest of the Santa Susana Mountains leading into the Newhall Pass late Tuesday afternoon. Fire officials said their strategy is to let the fire simply burn itself out.

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UPDATE 11 a.m. Thursday:
The Sesnon Fire is 70 percent contained as of 11 a.m. Thursday, a fire official said.

Changing weather conditions helped firefighter battle the blaze, said Inspector Sam Padilla of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

"This was a wind driven fire. Without the wind we can get a line around it," Padilla said.

The Marek fire is 92 percent contained, according to the United States Forest Service Web site.

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UPDATE 10:00 p.m. Wednesday:
A downed electrical line sparked the Sesnon Fire, a fire official said Wednesday, as diminished winds reduced the fire danger.

The Sesnon Fire, which blackened 13,285 acres and claimed 19 homes, was 20 percent contained Wednesday and still burning in two directions: north toward the Santa Clarita Valley and west toward the Pacific Ocean.

But the absence of Santa Ana winds allowed firefighters to do their jobs Wednesday.

The fire that erupted Monday above Porter Ranch was touched off by a privately owned electrical distribution line that snapped near the intersection of service roads Palo Sola Truck Road and West Limekiln Road deep in the Santa Susanna Mountains, said Inspector Sam Padilla of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

"The live wire fell into a drainage ditch into dry brush and ignited a small brush fire," which quickly grew, he said.

A joint investigation between L.A. County Fire, the Los Angeles Fire Department and CalFire began Tuesday and investigators came up with the cause Wednesday, Padilla said.

Fire officials said aircraft Wednesday were still attacking the Sesnon Fire above the northwest end of the San Fernando Valley.

Incident commander Scott Poster said places remained where no fire lines had been established "so if the wind hits it, it could move."

Despite the decline of the Santa Anas, the National Weather Service extended warnings of risky fire conditions through Friday because of low humidity, which makes vegetation easier to burn.

Fire officials said there were about 3,000 homes in the vicinity of the fire Wednesday.

But the fire's northern trek was not being ignored, a fire official said.

The winds forecast for Tuesday failed to deliver and firefighters caught their first break, Frank Garrido said.

The northern edge of the Sesnon Fire burned deep in the Santa Susanna Mountains Tuesday afternoon. A few water drops from air cranes doused the flames, but fire officials were content to let the fire strip some of the fuels from the forest, Garrido said.

The Marek Fire, which erupted Sunday morning, scorched 4,824 acres near Little Tujunga Canyon.

The fire was 80 percent contained as of 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, said Stephanie English, county fire spokeswoman. Fire crews expected 100 percent containment by Wednesday night with work shifting to mop up operations Thursday morning, she said.

Check back later for further updates.

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UPDATE 11:40 a.m. Wednesday:
Firefighters are beginning to get control of the double-pronged Sesnon Fire Wednesday morning, a fire official said.

The fire charred 13,285 acres and is 20 percent contained as of 11:40 a.m. Wednesday, said Inspector Ron Haralson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The two-headed fire is marching north into Santa Clarita Valley and west toward the Pacific Ocean.

Air attack over the western front is slowing the fire and saving homes in Simi Valley, Haralson said. As containment numbers along the western edge rise, firefighter will redirect water-dropping craft to the SCV.

"There is no doubt you will see water drops today," he said.

Strong winds stoked the fire Monday and it exploded from a small brush fire to a 10,000-acre menace in less than 24 hours, Inspector Frank Garrido said. Those winds didn't materialize Monday night and the fire's growth slowed Tuesday, he said.

However, a flareup midday Tuesday split the fire into two parts and made battling the blaze difficult, Garrido said.

The choice to defend structures and homes prompted fire officials to direct resources to the western front.

"The command post moved to Thousand Oaks Tuesday morning ahead of the fire," Garrido said.

The northern edge of the Sesnon Fire burned deep in the Santa Susanna Mountains Tuesday afternoon. A few water drops from air cranes doused the flames, but fire officials were content to let the fire strip some of the fuels from the forest, Garrido said. With no homes directly in the fire's path there is no reason for concern, he said.

The Marek Fire, which erupted Sunday morning, scorched 4,824 acres near Little Tujunga Canyon. The fire is 80 percent contained as of 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, Haralson said. Firefighters will continue to attack the fire and mop up areas where the fire is already extinguished, he said.

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Update 10:20 p.m. Tuesday:
The strategy for fighting the northern edge of the two-headed Sesnon Fire is simple - let it burn, a fire official said Tuesday.

The wildfire that erupted Monday in Porter Ranch divided on two fronts Tuesday; the northern flank advanced toward the Santa Clarita Valley just west of the Newhall Pass, said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Frank Garrido.

With no structures in the fire's immediate northern path, fire crews stood pat.

"We are going to let the fire strip some fuel out of the forest," Garrido said.

The eastern edge of the fire pushed west into rolling grasslands of Ventura County and made runs toward Simi Valley neighborhoods of modern homes defended by a broad firebreak, helicopters, airplanes and ground crews.

Sesnon, the biggest of Southern California's wildfires, charred 13,285 acres and 19 homes in the San Fernando Valley. No residences were lost to the fire Tuesday. By 10 p.m., officials reported the fire was 20 percent contained.

Santa Ana winds were less severe Tuesday, but Garrido said wind isn't the only factor in battling such fires.

Fuel and topography play an equally important role in fire behavior, he said.

"The fuels out in front of the fire are basically sucking the fire in," Garrido said about the northern advancing edge. That, mixed with favorable topography, allows the fire to move north even as winds from the north are pushing against it, he said.

Joanne Leone lives on Chicory Court in Newhall.

"I've been watching the smoke and the flames since last night," she said. A clear view of the Sesnon Fire is visible from her home. "I'm praying nothing happens."

She remembers the 2003 wildfires, when her home was under siege by flames that quickly scaled the hillside behind her house.

Fire doesn't scare Mike Lovingood.

"I have confidence in our firefighters," he said.

Lovingood owns Calgrove Kennels in Newhall. More than 40 dogs and cats are housed at the kennel, and in the event that the area is evacuated, Lovingood can pack up the animals in his trailer and make tracks in less than an hour, he said.

The command post for the Sesnon Fire was moved to Thousand Oaks on Tuesday, and most air drops were conducted there, but if homes in the Santa Clarita Valley were threatened the response would be quick, Garrido said.

"The air operations go where homes are threatened," he said.

The Sesnon Fire is one of three major blazes that have burned 34 square miles of Southern California, killed a man, destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes this week.

Ten miles away, there was major progress against Los Angeles' other big wildfire. The 4,824-acre Marek fire in the northeastern San Fernando Valley was 80 percent contained Tuesday night and some evacuees were allowed to go home.

But people who lived in an area where 38 mobile homes were destroyed were not permitted to return.

Some residents managed to sneak into the Sky Terrace Lodge mobile home park, where some streets were a total loss - homes reduced to lumps of melted plastic and buckled wood.

Darlene and Ken Rede's home survived, but their next-door neighbor's was gone. On their porch, a weather gauge was melted while a roll of kitchen towel hanging below it was untouched.

"Why did we get spared?" said Darlene Rede. "I feel so bad for the people, my emotions are running crazy."

Lisa Torell, 52, a 13-year-resident, recounted fleeing as palm trees exploded into flames. She said she wrapped a sweater around her head as burning embers spat from the sky.

"It was like a nightmare - an earthquake and a hurricane all at once," she said.

Torell found her home intact. The top of a plum tree was singed but her banana plants were untouched and hummingbirds drank from feeders hanging from her porch.

On the north coast of San Diego County, a 3,600-acre fire at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton was 60 percent contained. Evacuation orders were largely lifted for about 2,000 Marine Corps personnel and family members in military housing and residents of about 1,500 homes in neighboring Oceanside.

A separate small fire closed Interstate 5 through the base for two hours Tuesday before it was controlled.

In eastern San Diego County along the U.S.-Mexico border, a 200-acre fire that forced residents from 300 homes in the community of Campo was 70 percent contained and evacuations were canceled.

In the inland region 60 miles east of Los Angeles, a fire in the Little Mountain area of San Bernardino was contained at 100 acres.

The National Weather Service said the intensity of the winds was diminishing but warned there would still be strong gusts. Warnings for critical fire weather conditions were to remain in effect until Wednesday night.

The notorious Santa Anas usually sweep in between October and February as cold, dry air descending over the Great Basin flows toward Southern California and squeezes through mountain passes and canyons.

The extremely low humidity levels, which make vegetation easier to burn, combine with high wind speeds to whip fires into infernos.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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