Finally, a clean breath amid fires

Residents of the San Fernando Valley breathed air free of smoke and ash for the first time in four days Wednesday under brilliant blue skies.

Gone were the convulsive winds that at times reached gale force. Nowhere could Los Angeles police be found using bullhorns to order residents out of homes and away from deadly fires that have blackened more than 34 square miles and destroyed more than 50 homes.

The last evacuation orders for two big fire areas at opposite ends of the valley were lifted, though some locations were open just to residents.

Some of those who returned found only rubble.

“I've been crying for days,” said Tanya Valdivia, 32, as she searched what was left of her mobile home. “I guess it's just a natural thing, but when you've lost everything, you're going to be upset.”

The winds that helped spread the flames were slack Wednesday, though temperatures were rising and the largest fire, which has consumed more than 20 square miles near Porter Ranch, remained only 20 percent contained. Incident commander Scott Poster said there were places where no fire lines had been established, “so if the wind hits it, it could move.”

Helicopters and air tankers were still attacking the flames. Fire officials said there were about 3,000 homes in the vicinity, and though some areas of the fire appeared to be extinguished, firefighters were digging into debris to make sure nothing was still burning.

With humidity low, the National Weather Service extended warnings of risky fire conditions from Wednesday evening through Friday in many areas along the Southern California coast and east of Los Angeles.

The fires forced thousands of people to evacuate and were blamed for two deaths. One man died in the flames, and a motorist was killed in a crash as a fire neared a freeway.

Fifteen homes and 47 outbuildings were destroyed in the Porter Ranch area, and another six homes were damaged, said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Ron Haralson. Investigators determined it was ignited when a power line fell onto dry brush, the Fire Department said.

Ten miles away, there was major progress against Los Angeles' other big wildfire. A 71/2-square-mile fire in the northeastern San Fernando Valley was 90 percent contained, and some evacuees were allowed to go home.

Thirty-eight mobile homes and a house were destroyed.

Valdivia and her husband got out of their home early Sunday, taking their wedding photos and two dogs, Chico and Oreo. After returning, one of the few items she could find was a ceramic bride figure – now headless – from the top of her wedding cake.

“This was all I ever had,” she said. “This was my first home, and God knows when I'll be able to afford another one.”

The outbreak of fires followed the weekend arrival of the first significant Santa Ana winds of the fall. The notorious winds 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.