Santiago, Slide fires still worrisome

Santiago, Slide fires still worrisome
Orange County Firefighters drive past a wildfire driven by powerful winds in Silverado Canyon, Calif. (AP)
Wildfires were a growing threat in Orange and San Bernardino counties today, even as there were hopeful signs of a return to normal life in hard-hit San Diego, with Qualcomm Stadium no longer housing fire evacuees.

The Santiago fire in Orange County burned fiercely in the Santa Ana Mountains, threatening 750 homes in Silverado Canyon and moving quickly toward Riverside County. Firefighters coated homes with protective gel and ordered dozens of residents to evacuate as thick plumes of smoke heralded the spread of the main blaze.

Dick Birger, a spokesman with the Southwest Incident Management team, said at 1 p.m. that the fire was expected to move into the Silverado Canyon area of Orange County. Riverside County officials said the Coldwater-Wild Rose and Mayhew-Sycamore Creek areas were at greatest risk if the fire crossed into their county.

In Green Valley Lake near Running Springs in the San Bernardino Mountains, firefighters worked to contain the Slide fire, which threatened 10,000 structures. Mandatory evacuations remained in effect for communities west of Big Bear Lake to Crestline.

Across Southern California, weary firefighters continued to try to contain the fires that have plagued seven counties since last weekend. Better weather, with slowing winds and the promise of falling temperatures and rising humidity, has become the key ally in the land and air war against the fires.

A shallow marine layer flowed along the coast, keeping winds at about 10 mph and pushing temperatures, which had reached the high 90s in some areas, into the low 80s. Humidity is expected to rise from a dry-as-dust 10% to the 30%-to-50% range by the end of next week, said Noel Isla, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

The bright spots were in San Diego. Qualcomm Stadium, where more than 10,000 people sought shelter during the firestorm, was closed as an evacuation center this morning, and anyone who still needed shelter was moved to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Weariness has set in among evacuees, many of whom are returning to charred properties and dreams.

Kimmi Moto, an evacuee from Ramona, checked an update board to see if it was safe to go home. She discovered there was no water in her hometown.

"I guess we'll have to go to Del Mar," she said. "I'd rather not, but I still don't have a home yet."

San Diego City Councilman Jim Madaffer surveyed the scattered sleeping bags, cots and blankets at the stadium. "It's amazing how quickly this place emptied out. I think a lot of these people are just tired of sleeping outdoors."

The acupuncture and massage stands where evacuees had been treated again became garlic-fries and beer stands in preparation for Sunday's Chargers game. City workers painted the end zones and yard markers.

The main fires -- the Witch, Harris, Rice and Poomacha -- continued to burn, but were less voracious overnight. The Rice Fire, which began in Fallbrook, is considered "human caused," officials said.

"Right now we're moving into the mop-up and cleanup stage," said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Sarah Gibson. "We're moving into a repopulation phase."

As dawn broke on the sixth day of the fires, officials predicted the air and ground assault would intensify. Residents continued to return home, or to where their homes had been. Pets and farm animals were being returned to concerned owners and workaday governmental operations resumed.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park, in the fire-hit San Pasqual Valley, has reopened. Hundreds of birds and small mammals were evacuated during the height of the Witch fire but are now back on exhibit. One bird and one member of the horse family died, possibly from stress or smoke inhalation. Animal park bird handlers have reevaluated fire damage and decided that the destruction of a condor facility won't keep the birds from breeding. The park has 23 California condors, part of a breeding program to save the endangered species.

The Horno fire at Camp Pendleton, which disrupted training for Marines set to deploy soon to Iraq, had burned 20,000 acres and was 80% contained, officials said this morning. Power was restored to one large housing unit, but several areas of the sprawling base were still without electricity. Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, was to tour Camp Pendleton this afternoon.

Amid the progress in San Diego, there was growing concern elsewhere.

The Santiago fire remained just 30% contained and officials worried it was threatening communication equipment on Santiago Peak and heading to Riverside County.

Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Gavin said authorities were evacuating the Silverado Canyon and Black Star Canyon areas.

"We're asking people to leave because these are dangerous conditions, but we can't drag them out," he said. These areas were evacuated earlier this week, but a small number of people, possibly 20, refused to leave and others may have returned.

Fire authorities called the blaze "very active" with "extreme rates of speed." It was being fought by more than 1,000 firefighters, 110 fire engines, three helicopters, four air tankers, 21 hand crews and 10 bulldozers.

The fire started on the western side of Santiago Canyon Road on Sunday. Though officials previously said there were three points of origin, on Thursday, they said there were actually two.

The Orange County Fire Authority confirmed this morning that the reward offered for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the Santiago Canyon arson fire is $285,000. The money comes from various law enforcement agencies and was bolstered by a $100,000 donation from radio station KFI-AM.

Meanwhile, a 41-year-old Sun Valley man suspected of starting a fire in the West Hills area Wednesday has been charged with arson, the district attorney's office said today. Catalino Pineda is to be arraigned in Van Nuys Superior Court, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Frankland. He is accused of one count of arson of a structure or forest.

Pineda is being held in lieu of $75,000 bail. If convicted, he could face up to six years in prison. The fire he is accused of setting was quickly extinguished.

The cause of all of the fires is being investigated, though downed power lines are suspected in many.

The other worrisome blaze was in San Bernardino County, where officials at the Rim of the World command center reported at 8 a.m. that the Slide fire had burned 13,378 acres, up from the previous estimate of 11,675. "Fire perimeter containment efforts are slow due to rough terrain, heavy vegetation and high-density residential properties intermixed with bug-killed timber," said a morning report released by fire officials at the scene.

The Slide fire was only 15% contained as of this morning, with 1,359 firefighters on scene and 10,000 homes threatened. More structures were reported destroyed, but officials are waiting to release a number and location on the structures, mainly homes, destroyed.

The San Bernardino County assessor's office announced that it hoped to release a list of the addresses and parcel numbers of some 200 homes destroyed or damaged in the Lake Arrowhead area, according to spokesman Adam Aleman. The list -- at -- will not include names of property owners but will have information about whether the residences were damaged or destroyed. Residents of the burned areas can call the office at (877) 885-7654.

Four charred bodies of suspected illegal immigrants were found Thursday afternoon near the Mexican border, bringing to seven the number of deaths officials have directly linked to the fires.

Times staff writers Tami Abdollah, Andrew Blankstein, Ari B. Bloomekatz, Rich Connell, Scott Glover, Anna Gorman, Christine Hanley, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Jack Leonard, Rong-Gong Lin II, Robert J. Lopez, Richard Marosi, David McKibben, Joe Mozingo, Michael Muskal, Sonia Nazario, Charles Ornstein, Alex Pham, David Pierson, Maeve Reston, Stuart Silverstein, Francisco Vara-Orta and Richard Winton contributed to this report.