Helicopters to rejoin battle against wildfire

Monday, September 25, 2006

OJAI, Calif. -- Firefighters gained ground Sunday against a wildfire that has burned more than 200 square miles in the Los Padres National Forest, aided by calmer winds and aircraft dropping water and fire-smothering chemicals.

"The fire is still on the radar, but it's not what it was," said battalion Chief Kelly Zombro of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Gentler winds allowed firefighters to bring in more than 40 helicopters and airplanes, including a hulking DC-10 modified to carry fire retardant. Firefighters credited the jetliner with knocking back the edge of the fire that was creeping toward the town of Ojai.

Despite the fire's size -- it's grown to 127,569 acres since breaking out Labor Day -- no homes have been destroyed. No injuries were reported Sunday, and the blaze was about 40 percent contained.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Ventura County Sunday evening, clearing the way for assistance from the governor's emergency services office and state funds for rebuilding and recovery.

Winds fluctuated Sunday but were still tamer than in recent days, gusting at 40 mph compared to 50 mph Saturday and shifting away from populated communities in the afternoon. That lowered the risk of flames spreading and let more ground crews go to work.

As winds faded, local residents appeared less anxious as more than 3,000 firefighters and emergency blanketed the area.

"If something major happens, it would really be an act of God because this area has just been covered so completely by the fire service," said Mike Gram, 54, who stopped into a grocery store in Ojai.

Earlier Sunday, a large plume of smoke rose from behind a ridge as helicopters lifted off in rapid succession from a staging area in a hayfield east of Ojai, ferrying water and transporting more than 100 hand crews to a remote northeast area to complete part of a three-mile fire line.

"Today is a pivotal day. We can make some progression on our fire line," said Ventura County fire Capt. Barry Parker.

Late Saturday, authorities urged the evacuation of some 300 homes and a college east of Ojai. The order was voluntary.

Flames were visible on the ridge from Highway 150, which is about three miles from the fire line.

Another blaze started by embers from the huge fire burned about 7,000 acres in the canyons above Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, which sits between Ojai and Fillmore, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. The campus was evacuated late Saturday.

Students said college maintenance employees had been running sprinklers nonstop for a week. Buses transported evacuated students to a nearby church for the night.

Burning along the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the blaze doubled in size when Santa Ana winds kicked up a week ago. A light, moist wind from the south had calmed the huge fire for several days earlier this week.

The fire has cost $33 million to fight.

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