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Desert winds fuel Calif. wildfires

Ferocious desert winds pushed one of three major wildfires burning across Southern California to nearly double its size overnight, firefighters said Tuesday, the third day of the blazes that have destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands to flee.

One person was killed by the flames; another died in a car crash as a blaze neared the freeway.

The fires have charred more than 25 square miles in suburban Los Angeles and northern San Diego County, with the fiercest blazes burning in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of Los Angeles.

Investigators are looking into the cause of all three fires.

The whipping winds caused a fire in the west end of the San Fernando Valley, in the Porter Ranch area, to double in size from 5,000 to nearly 10,000 acres overnight, fire officials said.

But just 10 miles away, the erratic Santa Ana winds subsided, allowing firefighters to contain nearly 70 percent of a blaze burning at the northeast end of the valley. Hours earlier, that fire had been only 5 percent contained. Authorities reduced the acreage on that fire to 4,800 acres from 5,300 acres.

Firefighters worried the erratic winds could return to the area. In other parts of the valley, they were gusting to 50 mph, fire officials said.

The winds didn't return to the northeast section of the valley as expected overnight, fire Inspector Paul Hartwell said. “It's, how do I want to put this? Controlled optimism.”

In San Diego County, two wildfires that began at Camp Pendleton had merged. Authorities lifted an evacuation order for about 1,000 homes but said another 500 homes along the border of the Marine base remained vacated.

Marine Cpl. Priscilla Vitale said the fire had scorched more than 3,000 acres and was about 25 percent contained.

A new fire that ignited Tuesday at Camp Pendleton, forcing the closure of 20 miles of Interstate 5 for two hours, is now under control and the interstate has been reopened, Vitale said. It is the third fire to start on the base in two days.

Another fire burning in eastern San Diego County had burned 100 acres and forced the evacuation of 300 homes near the border community of Campo. That evacuation order was lifter later Tuesday morning, after the fire was about 70 percent contained.

A fire broke out in San Bernardino. It was threatening several hundred homes and some residents were being evacuated, said fire spokesman Steve Tracy.

The fire at the northeast end of the San Fernando Valley – called the Marek fire – started Sunday and burned 38 mobile homes and one single-family home. It was blamed for one of two fire-related deaths.

Nineteen structures – some of them homes – were destroyed by the fire in the Porter Ranch area and a motorist died when he was rear-ended on a smoky roadway after fire jumped the freeway.

More than 2,000 firefighters and a fleet of water- and retardant-dropping aircraft battled the two fires.

“The fire wants to make its way to the coast, and we're going to do our level best to stop it,” said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey.

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