New brush fires in rural L.A.

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — New brush fires swept over rural hills in Los Angeles County on Thursday, while good weather to the north aided firefighters building containment lines around two wildfires that destroyed homes in remote mountain communities earlier in the week.

Water-dropping helicopters and engine crews rushed to two blazes on both sides of State Route 14 northeast of Santa Clarita, a northern Los Angeles suburb, as orange flames exploded through dry brown grasses.

Few buildings are in the area, but a permanent inmate firefighter camp was being evacuated, LA County Fire Inspector Matt Levesque said.

State Route 14 snakes through the San Gabriel Mountains, connecting Los Angeles to the high desert. Angeles National Forest lands lie on either side. The county was joined by the U.S. Forest Service in directing the firefighting on one of the blazes, Levesque said.

A third blaze in the county, west of the high-desert Antelope Valley city of Lancaster, appeared in check.

The situation was calmer in adjacent Kern County, where two fires destroyed residences this week.

A 21/4-square-mile blaze near Tehachapi on the western edge of the Mojave Desert was 25 percent contained after burning about 30 homes and other structures in a scattered community called Old West Ranch.

To the north, a fire that destroyed eight residences and a few outbuildings as it spread across about 25 square miles of the Sequoia National Forest in the Sierra Nevada was 12 percent contained, authorities said.

A pattern of cool, moist morning and evening air was helping firefighters in the Tehachapi area about 70 miles north of Los Angeles.

Early Thursday, only glowing embers could be seen and there was no smoke, said John Buchanan, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Winds picked up as expected in the afternoon, but "the fire's not doing much," Buchanan said.

Old West Ranch nonetheless remained evacuated, affecting about 150 people.

The blaze erupted Tuesday afternoon and rapidly swept through an area where Kern County fire authorities say there is no history of any fires on record, meaning vegetation hadn't burned there in more than a century.

Immediate estimates of home losses ranged as high as 40 but were later reduced. A damage inspection team was evaluating properties to make a final count.

The much larger but less destructive blaze in Sequoia National Forest was burning grass and brush on both sides of the Kern River, a destination for rafting, fishing and hiking in the southern Sierra.

Some 2,400 firefighters, 124 engines and 14 helicopters worked the blaze north of the town of Kernville.

"The crews have made real good progress the last couple of days because of the weather," said Pete Jankowski, a U.S. Forest Service information officer.

The cooler temperatures and some overcast skies calmed the blaze, in contrast to the initial hours when fire behavior was too dangerous to put firefighters into the steep and rugged terrain.

Many hand crews were doing the labor-intensive work of cutting line, and some were having to camp out, Jankowski said.

"They're doing their work, eating and sleeping up there so they can get back at it, because it's such a long distance to get them up there," he said.

There were no remaining evacuations following the return of residents to the tiny community of Riverkern on Wednesday, but a stretch of Mountain Highway 99 was closed.

Despite the fire, the region's summer activities appeared to be getting back to normal, Jankowski said.

"There's fishermen out there, there's rafters, there's kayakers," he said after returning from Kernville to the command center at Lake Isabella. "Other than some smoke, you wouldn't know there's anything else going on."

The incident command said a task force of federal and Kern County law enforcement officers was formed to investigate the fire, which began before early Monday and was believed to be human-caused.

AP-WF-07-30-10 0010GMT

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