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Santa Ana winds keep fire danger high

September 23, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Firefighters were keeping a close eye on several wildfires burning in the Inland Empire Wednesday. People there may have dodged a bullet Tuesday, but with the winds, they're not out of danger just yet. Crews are mopping up what's left of a fire burning there.It hasn't been an extremely strong Santa Ana wind event this week, at least not when compared with how fearsome the winds can be. But for many, they're strong enough.

In Fontana, an area prone to high winds, and farther south in Norco, the winds fanned flames in Tuesday, bringing the fingers of a brush fire right up to the edge of several back yards. No homes were damaged.

Residents were just as lucky along the Santa Ana riverbed in Riverside. The flames from a brush fire came close to several homes, but no damage.

"I see it came really close and we're all still very fortunate to have our homes," said Riverside resident Beverly Gestelo. "It came within feet of houses."

Gestelo was one of many residents who came to see just how close the fire got Tuesday. Even though the flames are gone, residents are still concerned about the wind.

"It is a little bit of a concern," said Gestelo. "It looks like it's still smoldering a little bit right there, but there's a lot of firefighters out here, and the helicopters, and the flames have gone all morning, so I think they have it well under control."

Santa Ana winds are also on the minds of officials at Cal Fire and Southern California Edison. They just finished up what's called "Operation Santa Ana," a two-week project to make sure brush is cleared from around power poles. It's a project that's been fairly successful over the past 10 years.

"Many years ago we had a lot of fires started by down lines, arcing lines, things like that," said Bill Peters, Cal Fire. "In the 10 years we've been doing that we've not had a major power line caused fire."

Wind speeds out in the Santa Ana riverbed measured about 15 miles per hour and were re still gusting higher with temperatures in the triple digits. When asked when the fire would be fully contained, firefighters said maybe Wednesday evening or Thursday, all depending on the weather.

Red-flag weather is bad news for firefighters trying to fully contain the Station Fire burning in the Angeles National Forest. There have been some flare-ups as the stubborn fire continues to burn.

Not much wind Wednesday afternoon on a lower stretch of Angeles Crest Highway, but the farther up the mountains you go, there is a steady breeze. It's not much but it's enough to keep firefighters worried that it may breathe new life into the Station Fire.

The flames came very close to burning some homes in La Canada. That's why hundreds of firefighters are still working the fire.

The scar from the Station Fire stretches across hundreds of square miles of the Angeles National Forest. The landscape is scorched and lifeless in some sections; in others, green and seemingly untouched by the flames. But a slight shaft of smoke could be seen through the trees Wednesday, and a steady breeze feeding the hot spot smoldering just below Mount Wilson, with its famed observatory and vast collection of communication arrays.

"You've got big logs that are burning, and it's been burning for a while, so you've got roots that are also burning down in that area, so you've got these little hot spots that will pop up when the wind starts to get on them," said Marc Peebles, firefighter spokesman at the Station Fire.

Firefighters say that even though the winds are not as strong as expected, they are causing problems on the Station Fire. In fact, one hot spot on the fire's eastern edge flared up, jumped containment lines, and burned 20 acres Tuesday before crews got it under control.

That's why about 800 firefighters are still assigned to the Station Fire.

"We have to be very, very vigilant and we've got to keep an eye out and keep aircraft available, we've got to keep crews on the ground working, crews down in those deep, steep canyons working on those hot spots to keep these things in check until this wind event passes," said Peebles.

The Angeles Crest Highway remains closed to the public, and could be for months. Both sides are scorched and guardrails lie useless on the ground, wooden posts completely burned away.

Firefighters warn this may not be the last deadly fire seen this year.

"We're beginning Santa Ana season," said Peebles. "It's important that residents that live in the foothill communities, folks that live in the mountains, that they get themselves ready."

Eyewitness News Reporter Rob Hayes contributed to this report.

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