Firefighters toiled in stifling heat Saturday on the lines of destructive wildfires across the U.S. West, making progress against some blazes while struggling to tame others that have forced evacuations of hundreds of homes.
In heat-stricken Southern California, powerful winds that sent an overnight inferno hopscotching through the Santa Barbara County community of Goleta vanished in the morning, allowing firefighters to extinguish smoldering ruins of an estimated 20 structures, including homes.
Authorities announced that mandatory evacuation orders were being greatly reduced and many of the 2,500 people who fled Friday night would be able to return home by late afternoon.
County Fire Chief Eric Peterson thanked residents for heeding the call to evacuate, allowing firefighters to focus on fire suppression rather than rescues.
“There very likely would have been fatalities last night had those evacuations not occurred,” Peterson said.
The fire’s spread was stopped at about 100 acres (40.5 hectares) in a neighborhood where some houses were in ruins while homes next door were intact.
Eric Durtschi stood outside his destroyed house, where a burned-out car stood in the driveway and kids’ bicycles were strewn about.
Durtschi, his wife and six children had left Utah and moved in just a few weeks ago. He said he hadn’t yet told his two oldest children their home was gone. He managed to collect his severely burned vintage guns, hoping to salvage them.
A neighbor’s home across the street was spared. The man had stayed through the night spraying down other people’s houses.
Elsewhere in Southern California, firefighters increased containment of a central San Diego County fire that rapidly spread over 400 acres (162 hectares), destroyed 18 structures and damaged eight, and a wildfire in the San Bernardino National Forest was holding at 1.5 square miles (404 hectares) and forced evacuation of about 700 homes in the mountain community of Forest Falls.
Fires also burned on the Marine Corps’ sprawling Camp Pendleton base in northern San Diego County.
Among new fires Saturday, a blaze erupted on a steep mountain slope just above the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank and helicopters pounded it with water to try to keep it from getting out of hand.
Southern California fires began erupting Friday as strong high pressure over the West spawned an epic heat wave that saw parts of Los Angeles broil in temperatures up to 117 degrees (47.2 Celsius). There was little relief overnight.
“Temperatures at 8 a.m. were ridiculously over 100 degrees” in foothills near Forest Falls and many inland valleys, the National Weather Service said.
Forecasters said the region’s siege of heat would gradually ease through the weekend, but the unstable air mass unleashed downpours that triggered flash-flood warnings for the mountains northeast of Los Angeles.
Further up north and just south of the California-Oregon border, the 34-square-mile (88-square-kilometer) Klamathon Fire in rural Siskiyou County was just 5 percent contained. The body of a resident was found Friday in the ruins of a home, among 15 destroyed structures tallied so far.
Authorities described “extreme fire behavior with movement in multiple directions,” with threats to the California communities of Hornbrook and Hilt as well as Colestin, Oregon. Ray Haupt, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said losses included homes and livestock.
Elsewhere in California, the 138-square-mile (357-square-kilometer) County Fire northwest of Sacramento was more than half contained Saturday. Ten structures were counted destroyed but damage assessments were continuing.
With fires occurring statewide, a Colorado-based Boeing 747-400 supertanker was deployed to California.
Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the supertanker was undergoing checks at an airfield outside Sacramento.
Software issues needed to be resolved before the aircraft owned by Global SuperTanker Services of Colorado Springs could be activated under a call-when-needed contract.
In Utah, meanwhile, authorities allowed the return of some residents who fled a wildfire near a popular fishing lake 80 miles (130 kilometers) southeast of Salt Lake City. The blaze has burned about 75 square miles (193 square kilometers) and destroyed 90 structures, including homes, cabins, sheds and garages, since starting Sunday in the mountains.
In Colorado, firefighters took advantage of occasional rainstorms to extend their containment lines at several large wildfires.
In the south, crews Saturday contained about 45 percent of a 167-square-mile (433-square-kilometer) fire that has destroyed more than 130 homes, while in Rocky Mountain ski country firefighters from 20 states were battling an 8-square-mile (22-square-kilometer) wildfire above the Roaring Fork Valley. Commanders said they hoped for one-third containment by late Sunday.
Crews also had 50 percent containment of a southwestern Colorado fire that has blackened 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) north of Durango. Authorities said Saturday that afternoon storms could produce flash floods and mudslides in burn scars.
And in central Colorado’s Park County, crews encircled a third of a spotty fire that forced the Buffalo Creek Wilderness to close. A stretch of busy U.S. Highway 285 between Fairplay and Antero Junction reopened Saturday.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Jim Anderson in Denver and freelance photographer Noah Berger in Goleta contributed to this report.
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