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Ashes cover areas hit by Southern Calif. fires

Thousands of Southern Californians were back in their homes Thursday after wildfires, but warnings of risky conditions extended through Friday because of low humidity.
David Bixler searches through the ashes of his former home on Wednesday in search of his girlfriend's ring. The home was one of many at Sky Terrace Mobile Lodge north of Los Angeles that was destroyed by wildfire.Ric Francis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like thousands of residents, Tanya Valdivia was allowed back in her neighborhood after firefighters began to surround the remnants of three major wildfires that forced widespread evacuations this week in Southern California.

The news for Valdivia wasn't good: Her home was among 54 lost in one of two big fires that erupted in suburban Los Angeles neighborhoods that border brush and forest lands.

"I've been crying for days," said Valdivia, 32, as she searched the remains of her burned mobile home in the northern San Fernando Valley. "I guess it's just a natural thing, but when you've lost everything, you're going to be upset."

Authorities found that the biggest of the region's fires — which started near the community of Porter Ranch — was caused by a downed electrical line.

Combined, the three major fires had scorched more than 34 square miles, aided by Santa Ana winds that whipped through the region's canyons and passes.

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

Progress at Porter Ranch
Fire officials said a 13,285-acre blaze at the northwest end of the valley was 50 percent contained. The fire, which began near Porter Ranch on Monday, destroyed 15 homes and 47 other structures. Another six homes were damaged.

"The winds seem like they're going to cooperate," said Michael Pittman, a Los Angeles County fire supervising dispatcher. He said there's no estimate on when the fire will be contained.

Fire officials said there were about 3,000 homes in the vicinity and though some areas of the fire appeared to be extinguished, firefighters were digging into debris to make sure nothing was still burning under the surface.

With no smoke to obscure visibility, the fire's hopscotch path through the hills above the valley could be easily seen — blackened swaths and patches here and there where the winds hurled embers. Some houses stood unscathed next to the charred remnants of others.

Deborah Schwartz held back tears as firefighters walked her six horses down Browns Canyon Road near Porter Ranch and loaded them into trailers. Firefighters rescued them from a burning stable on Monday, but a friend's horse did not survive, she said.

"When I close my eyes that's all I see — not being able to help him," she said. "I lost everything I had, every saddle. My horses are like homeless people."

Two other large fires were almost completely contained: A 4,026-acre blaze at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, and a 4,824-acre fire which destroyed 38 mobile homes and a house on the edge of Angeles National Forest.

But in a sign that the danger was not over, a fire that broke out on the fringe of the Cleveland National Forest on the line separating Orange and Riverside counties Wednesday afternoon grew to about 30 acres by Thursday morning.

Living with Santa Anas
In the Twin Lakes neighborhood at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, Mark McReynolds vowed that his next house will be fireproof.

"I don't want this to happen to us again," he said Wednesday, standing near the twisted metal and charred wood that remains of his 1,200-square-foot house.

Like many of his neighbors, McReynolds understands that living in Twin Lakes means living with the strong Santa Ana winds.

"After we bought our house, we changed our way of life because of the winds. We learned to bring in the patio furniture. We tied down the tables, we did everything we had to," said McReynolds.

Still, bad luck struck. McReynolds said he makes a modest living in the movie industry, but in his garage was a side business that he lost entirely. The expensive video equipment and computers he used to create bar mitzvah and wedding packages were totally lost.

"We managed to find some personal things, family things," said McReynolds. "My son's handprint thing, the cremated ashes of our dog that died, some pictures."