Hot, stiff desert winds shoved fast-moving grass fires across Ventura and Los Angeles counties Thursday, destroying two houses and two automobiles in Canyon Country and blackening 24 acres of grasslands north of Santa Paula.
And causing further worry, a mild aftershock of the 1994 Northridge earthquake rattled homes and businesses in Simi Valley and the Conejo Valley, and the roofs of two residences in Camarillo briefly caught fire from a damaged power line.
While the moderate quake caused no damage or injuries, the fires in Canyon Country and Santa Paula forced dozens of homeowners to rush home from work, pack up children, pets and belongings, and flee to safer locations.
Smoke from the Canyon Country blaze could be seen and smelled as far south as Agoura Hills, and Thousand Oaks residents complained about a blizzard of ash fallout that blanketed their cars.
Thick, gray smoke enveloped the Antelope Valley Freeway, forcing a midday closure of a 14-mile stretch of the highway.
"I looked at the television and my whole canyon was on fire," said Santa Clarita resident Pamela Harding, who was at work in Studio City when she first learned of the blaze. "I said to everyone, 'I'm out of here. This is real.' "
The 1,370-acre blaze--which is being investigated by the sheriff's arson squad--was 100% contained by early evening, and crews were preparing to stay through the night dousing flare-ups.
Meanwhile, within the space of 4 1/2 hours, Ventura County was buffeted by a temblor and a two-alarm brush fire.
At 9:42 a.m., a 3.7-magnitude aftershock jolted housing subdivisions and office complexes. Its epicenter was three miles southeast of Simi Valley.
Barely an hour later, wind-whipped palm fronds caught fire from a nearby power line and shed sparks onto several homes near Laurelwood Park in Camarillo. Flames moderately damaged the roofs of two houses before firefighters could put out the fires.
And just before 2 p.m., a brush fire flared up just north of Santa Paula near the junction of Foothill and Wheeler Canyon roads.
Firefighters also had to douse pesky, ember-fed flare-ups from Wednesday's 119-acre brush fire in Simi Valley.
"It's our call to duty when those east winds start blowing," said Ventura County Assistant Fire Chief Dave Festerling, overseeing the army of 120 smoke-eaters who attacked the Santa Paula blaze. "This weather's been here for centuries. We know when it blows, it burns."
Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Reynolds chuckled ruefully about Thursday's fire-quake double whammy: "Oh man, it always seems to pour when it rains," he said. "I just hope that this is the end of our east winds, but I have the feeling that it's not going to be."
In some parts of Ventura County, thermometers tickled 90 degrees, wind gauges clocked 30-m.p.h. gusts and the humidity barely topped 10%.
By this morning, weather watchers predict, the strong, hot Santa Anas will have switched to cooler, gentler ocean breezes, which should reduce the fire risk.
The humidity is expected to rise, and the temperature should peak at no more than 90 degrees inland and hover near 70 along the coast, predicted Bob Cari, a meteorological technician for the National Weather Service.
But Thursday, tinderbox conditions across Southern California caused anxiety for homeowners and hard work for firefighters.
In Canyon Country, residents trying to drive home in fire-threatened neighborhoods clogged the winding streets of a housing development. The main route, Soledad Canyon Road, was at a standstill at times.
As homeowners of the Mountain View East housing tract gathered nervously in 100-degree heat to watch flames climb nearby ridges, the haze blocked the sun and visibility was cut to a few feet.
Several residents wore bandannas around their mouths and had to shout to be heard over the howling, erratic wind.
Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Larry Duran said the fire was discovered at 9:58 a.m. just north of the Antelope Valley Freeway near Valley Canyon Road. It was soon roaring northwest, fanned by 45-m.p.h. winds.
Before firefighters controlled the blaze at 2:30 p.m., it had destroyed two houses and two cars on a secluded ridgeline, causing a total of about $180,000 in damage.
By 1 p.m., Kari and Missy Liekkio had put their children in their car on Stone Ridge Court and were waiting to learn whether they should evacuate. They had moved into the area a few weeks before last year's earthquake. Now this.
"If the house burns down, it's just part of the saga," said Liekkio, a heating contractor who drove home from his job so fast that he accidentally rammed a firetruck.
Fretting that pets in the housing development might be trapped by the flames before their owners could rescue them, a Glendale animal lover braved the traffic jam to roam the streets of the area in a van.
"We spot where the dogs are and, if it gets bad, we come back and get them," said Leo Grillo, a volunteer for an organization called DELTA, or Dedication and Everlasting Love to Animals. "I'm one guy who in this situation will break and enter."
By late afternoon, the worst fears were over. Firefighters cautioned that high winds could kick up at any time, but reopened the Antelope Valley Freeway shortly after 1:30 p.m.
Barely 20 minutes later, fire broke out near Santa Paula. Nervous farmers--fearing a repeat of the October, 1993, Steckel fire that burned 26,000 acres in the same area--readied trailers to evacuate their animals.
Anxious parents bundled up their children and fled.
Betsy Held jogged down Wheeler Canyon with 5-year-old daughter Camille in her arms, the little girl clapping hands to her face against the ashy canopy of thick, dark smoke.
Erma Granados swaddled her newborn daughter, Sylvia Suarez, in a white blanket and strapped her into a car seat. The baby, born prematurely, wailed pitifully in the choking air.
"We're OK, but I'm afraid it will burn through here, and I'm worried about my baby," said Granados, 22. "She's just having such a hard time breathing."
Flames eventually lapped up the grass to within 25 yards of Granados' mobile home at the Wheeler Canyon Trailer Park.
But fire was kept away from the residences by a quick assault by fire crews, a wide carpet of fire-retarding chemicals laid down by air tankers and a fortuitous change in the wind. The fire was mostly snuffed out by 5 p.m.
"What really shut it down was the winds were kind of erratic," Reynolds said. "There was a kind of shoving match between the east winds and the onshore west winds, and the onshore winds won out."
Arson investigators are still trying to learn what caused that blaze, he said.
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Jon D. Markman and Frank Williams, and correspondents Scott Hadly, Andrew Blechman and Danica Kirka.