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Residents return to fire-gutted homes as California firefighters make progress on massive blazes

Firefighters took advantage of cooler temperatures Wednesday and increased containment on several destructive wildfires in California just ahead of another forecast of triple-digit heat this weekend.

The slight cool-down kept fire activity at minimal levels and allowed firefighters to improve containment lines around the blazes. The fires, which erupted over the weekend amid a searing heat wave, have destroyed more than four dozen homes statewide.

Wildfire risk will increase this weekend, as a massive high-pressure system settles over the American Southwest. That system is expected to raise temperatures in Northern California by as much as 10 degrees and 3 to 6 degrees in Southern California, according to the National Weather Service. The high pressure also will generate breezy conditions that can fan wildfire flames.

Light “sundowner winds” could be problematic for firefighters battling the 11,920-acre Whittier fire in Santa Barbara County, forecasters said. The strong offshore winds are formed by a building high pressure, which pushes the northerly gusts through canyons and passes in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

“This will make conditions in and around the Whittier fire worse,” meteorologist Andrew Rorke said in a weather statement.

Fire crews tackling the Whittier fire in the Los Padres National Forest put out hot spots overnight and constructed new containment lines to hold the massive blaze, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire was 48% contained.

The blaze, which started Saturday along Highway 154, has destroyed eight homes and 12 outbuildings south of Lake Cachuma, and prompted the evacuation of more than 3,500.

Another massive fire burning near Santa Maria, the 28,687-acre Alamo fire, has destroyed two structures, including one home. The blaze, which was 65% contained, continued to threaten 133 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Aided recently by light cloud cover and increased moisture levels, more than 2,200 firefighters have tackled flames smoldering in steep, rugged terrain.

Mandatory evacuations have remained active for residents living in the Tepusquet Canyon area. Hundreds of residents fled the remote area when the fire broke out Thursday off Highway 166 near Twitchell Reservoir in San Luis Obispo County.

In Butte County, some residents returned to their neighborhoods only to find their homes destroyed by the 5,800-acre Wall fire.

After inspecting the fire’s damage, Cal Fire determined that 41 homes had been destroyed. An additional 57 structures were damaged.

Steve Orsillo told KRCR-TV his home was one of 41 gutted by the blaze near Oroville. Orsillo built the house 25 years ago and shared it with his wife and four children.

“My heart sank,” he told the television news station. “We raised all of our children there. Just a lot of life there.”

Despite the warm temperatures and low humidity, nearly 1,700 firefighters have surrounded the blaze, strengthened containment lines and slowed its growth, Cal Fire said. The fire, which was 60% contained, still threatens 606 structures.

Elsewhere in the state, the Lariat fire, which broke out Tuesday afternoon, charred 100 acres in the east San Jose foothills. The fast-moving blaze destroyed one home and damaged another.

In the Central Valley, nearly 900 firefighters continued to battle the fast-growing Garza fire after it broke out Sunday afternoon near Tar Canyon in Kings County.

Flames were threatening five structures and power lines near Avenal.

The blaze, which was 24% contained, has scorched 18,666 acres of tall grass and brush in an area not easily accessible to firefighters, Cal Fire said.

Firefighters in San Diego County stopped a blaze from spreading into the community of Lakeside. Officials said three firefighters were hurt, and of those, two suffered moderate injuries and were taken to a hospital. The third was not hospitalized.

The 400-acre Jennings fire broke out Tuesday afternoon off Interstate 8 and triggered an hours-long freeway closure.

By Wednesday, one lane of eastbound Interstate 8 was reopened.

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter: VeronicaRochaLA

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