Despite benefiting from weaker than predicted weekend winds, firefighters Sunday were unable to fully contain the last two threatening Southern California wildfires, and authorities said one of the blazes might not be surrounded by ground crews until Saturday.
Authorities said the more stubborn blaze, the Poomacha fire in northeastern San Diego County, was proving tougher than expected to contain because it was burning in extremely steep, remote terrain. Until late Sunday, officials had said they were expecting full containment by the end of the weekend.
"We need to get on the ground deep in that area, and it is real rugged terrain. That's basically the only thing hindering us right now," said Matt Corelli, a spokesman for the team of firefighting agencies battling the Poomacha fire. "It's still burning high up on the ridgeline."
Corelli said an inspection by helicopter of the blaze, which has charred 49,410 acres and destroyed 138 homes and other structures since Oct. 23, determined that the challenge remained difficult. He said about three more miles of fire line was needed to encircle the blaze.
Still, he said, "The mood right now is that things are looking good," and the fire wasn't expected to begin a new advance, in part because of the easing winds.
The outlook was more optimistic at the Santiago fire in Orange County. Officials missed their target of containing the fire by late Sunday but said that goal would be reached soon, probably Tuesday.
"The brush is still smoldering," said Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion.
Though not threatening mountain communities, where residents returned home Saturday after an evacuation order was lifted, pockets of fire continued to chew 100-year-old brush and the roots of burnt vegetation above Silverado Canyon, he said.
Nearly 1,400 firefighters were aided by light winds and cool temperatures.
The blaze, which was started by an unknown arsonist Oct. 21, had charred about 28,400 acres and was 90% contained as of Sunday evening.
Once the Santiago fire is fully contained, Concepcion said, crews will begin "getting every single hot spot" within 300 feet inside the blaze's perimeter -- a job that could take two weeks.
Meantime, fire officials, conservation groups and private owners were already developing a plan for the burned areas, he said.
"We're talking about what needs to be done to rehabilitate the land -- anything from reseeding to . . . shoring up areas that are potential landslides in the future," Concepcion said.
The firefighters' outlook was brightened by a weather report that, according to Michael Lavis, a San Diego-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service, predicted "hardly any wind to speak of" this week.
"We're really going to see a fairly benign weather pattern through this week," Lavis said. Even in the breeziest areas, Lavis said, "I'd be surprised to see any gusts over 20 mph, and probably less than 15 mph generally."
By contrast, the 12 major wildfires that erupted in Southern California late last month were propelled by gusts that reached up to 85 mph.
Over the weekend, gusts in fire-struck areas peaked at about 35 mph.
"What we had anticipated never materialized," Corelli said, adding that firefighters over the weekend "really have not had to worry about the northeasterly winds, which can cause a lot of problems in the canyons. That's allowed us to get a real strong hold" on the blazes.
As crews continued cutting fire breaks and snuffing out hot spots in the nearby mountains, parishioners filled Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, a megachurch that authorities had used as a staging area, to honor firefighters and other public safety employees.
During a sermon Sunday, Pastor Rick Warren said "love grows deepest in suffering together" and praised firefighters for their work.
"It could have taken all of Orange County, particularly all of southern Orange County, if it wasn't for those men," he said after a video of firefighters speaking about their work and faith was shown.
When firefighters were invited to the stage, they were greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd, which spilled out the church's doors.
"If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have our homes. We wouldn't have a church," said Brenda Hansen, 41, of Mission Viejo.
Times Staff Writer Mike Anton contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times