Flames whirled dangerously close to homes Tuesday as gusty Santa Ana winds sent the biggest of Southern California's wildfires flaring in hilly brushlands on Los Angeles' northern edge.
Firefighters with hoses guarded houses as helicopters unleashed loads of water on hot spots of the more than 20-square-mile blaze charring slopes above the San Fernando Valley communities of Porter Ranch and Granada Hills.
Flames then pushed west to the rolling grasslands of Ventura County and made runs toward Simi Valley neighborhoods of modern homes defended by a broad firebreak, helicopters, airplanes and ground crews.
The fire is one of three major blazes that have burned more than 34 square miles of Southern California, destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes this week. One man died in the flames, and a motorist was killed in a crash as a fire neared a freeway.
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Sixty-two structures, 15 of them homes, have been destroyed in the Porter Ranch area, said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Ron Haralson. Officials said Tuesday night that they didn't know how much of the fire was contained.
Ten miles away, there was major progress against Los Angeles' other big wildfire.
The 71/2-square-mile fire in the northeastern San Fernando Valley was 70 percent contained, and some evacuees were allowed to go home. But people who lived in an area where 38 mobile homes were destroyed were not permitted to return.
Teresa Escamilla, 47, lay on a cot in a Red Cross shelter, thinking the worst. She believed she lost everything including a shoebox containing five years of savings.
“It feels like it's not real,” the nursing assistant said in Spanish. “It's a nightmare.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa acknowledged the uncertainty facing residents of the fire areas.
“Many still don't know when they are going to return home,” he said.
The outbreak of fires followed the weekend arrival of the first significant Santa Ana winds of the fall.
The National Weather Service said the intensity of the winds was diminishing but warned there would still be strong gusts. Warnings for critical fire weather conditions were to remain in effect until tonight.
The Santa Anas usually sweep in between October and February as cold, dry air descending over the Great Basin flows toward Southern California and squeezes through mountain passes and canyons. The extremely low humidity levels, which make vegetation easier to burn, and high windspeeds combine to whip fires into infernos.