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Winds driving California wildfires subside

Power companies cut electricity to thousands of homes during the fires.

Firefighter Giannis Giagos battles the Maria Fire in Santa Paula, California (Noah Berger/AP)
Firefighter Giannis Giagos battles the Maria Fire in Santa Paula, California (Noah Berger/AP)

By Associated Press Reporters

Calmer weather has allowed fire crews to step up containment efforts on wildfires after three weeks of winds fanned blazes across California.

The fires led utilities in the US state to cut electricity to prevent winds from blowing branches into power lines and igniting an inferno.

Winds have subsided in virtually all parts of California, though Red Flag warnings for fire danger because of winds and ultra-dry conditions remain in place through until Friday evening for some inland areas to the north and west of Los Angeles.

Lingering winds were blamed for churning up a fresh wildfire that erupted on Thursday evening and quickly spread from a hilltop near Santa Paula, north of Los Angeles.

Authorities in Ventura County ordered evacuations for about 7,500 people in an area that includes roughly 1,800 buildings as the blaze threatened the small unincorporated rural community of Somis.

Hundreds of firefighters tackled the blaze, which initially was fanned by moderate winds and then fuelled by tinder-dry brush in canyons.

It grew in only a few hours to around 7,400 acres – just over 11 square miles – before midnight.

Ventura County assistant fire chief John McNeil estimated that the fire could reach around 12,000 acres before running out of fuel.

Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said a small drone that appeared to be “looking at photography of the fire” interfered with aerial firefighting efforts on Thursday.

Meanwhile, dozens of local schools across several districts announced closures on Friday because of what officials dubbed the Maria fire.

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An image posted online by firefighters shows the beginning of the Maria fire (Ventura County Fire Department/AP)

For most of October, fires started across the state, forcing residents to flee their homes at all hours as flames indiscriminately burned barns, sheds, mobile homes and multimillion-dollar mansions.

The good news is that dry, dangerous winds that swept both ends of the state this week had mostly subsided and forecasters predicted an upcoming week of placid conditions.

Nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents were allowed to return home even as the 120-square-mile fire which forced them to evacuate continued to burn. At least 140 homes were destroyed.

During the fires, many people were left in the dark thanks to the intentional power outages.

In places where the power stayed on, utility lines and other electrical equipment were suspected or confirmed as the cause of several fires, including the one in Sonoma, another that started on a hillside above the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles and one that burned around the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday.

Pacific Gas & Electric finished restoring power to dozens of counties in the north and central regions after a third round of shut-offs this week designed to protect power lines from being damaged or toppled by high winds and sparking fires.

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Flames from a backfire consume a hillside as firefighters battle the Maria Fire in Santa Paula, California (Noah Berger/AP)

However, about 80,000 Southern California Edison users remained without power by late Thursday night.

The most devastating wildfires in California’s history have occurred in the past two years in the autumn, fuelled by a combination of built-up brush, dry conditions and extreme winds.

The anniversary of the deadliest of those – last year’s fire that torched the town of Paradise and killed 85 people – is next week.

The state experienced a wet winter with a large snowpack, and temperatures and wind speeds did not spike simultaneously over the summer, which has led to a less destructive fire season overall.

Acreage burned this year is down nearly 90% from last year and 80% below the five-year average over the same period, according to the US department of forestry and fire protection.

The moisture, however, has fuelled explosive growth of grasses that have now shrivelled into golden and brown tinder.

PA

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