Santa Ana winds, gusting across the Southland's parched hillsides at up to 35 m.p.h., fanned wildfires near Fontana and Simi Valley that destroyed two buildings and blackened about 2,600 acres of brushland early Monday, but the blazes were contained before sundown.
The largest of the fires started when a car on the shoulder of Interstate 15 burst into flames Sunday night. Whipped by the brisk, dry winds spilling out of the Cajon Pass, the blaze leaped into a thick stand of chaparral and spread rapidly south and west, prompting the evacuation of several tracts of homes on the outskirts of Fontana and Rialto.
"It looked really bad," said Roseanne Brown, an evacuee who watched the approaching flames from a Rialto service station where she had taken refuge with her three children. "The red glow was really scary looking."
Two firefighters and one resident were treated for minor injuries suffered while battling the blaze.
The gusty winds precluded the use of water-dropping aircraft, but a determined stand by more than 150 firefighters from across San Bernardino County saved all but one of the homes. By 2 a.m. Monday, the winds had begun to slacken and the spread of the fire was largely halted.
David Dowling, a spokesman for the county Fire Department, estimated that about 2,500 acres in the foothill scrubland at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains had been blackened.
"We're confident we've got a line around it," Dowling said shortly after dawn.
Ninety miles to the northwest, two major fires in the space of five hours kept Ventura County firefighters busy early Monday, destroying a vacant Sears store in Simi Valley and brush in Piru.
The larger of the two blazes seared 20 acres of undergrowth in a rugged canyon east of Simi Valley, sending a pillar of smoke high over the nearby Ronald Reagan Freeway that was visible for miles.
The sight quickly snarled rush-hour traffic, as did the decision by police to close another major commuting route--Santa Susana Pass Road--when it was briefly threatened by the fire.
About 100 firefighters--assisted by a "Super Scooper" air tanker and three water-dropping helicopters--corralled the flames within an hour.
The morning's other major fire in Ventura County destroyed the Sears building that had been vacated nearly two years ago after it was damaged by the Northridge earthquake. For once, the winds helped firefighters by driving the emerging flames back into the structure and keeping them from spreading to neighboring businesses, fire officials said.
They said someone had started the Sears fire, but it was not immediately determined whether the flames were ignited by transients trying to keep warm or by an arsonist.
Less than a quarter of an inch of rain--about a third of the usual amount--has fallen on Southern California since the 1995-96 rainfall season began July 1, and the dry Santa Ana winds are keeping fire officials edgy as they await the first significant rainstorm of the fall.
Thus far, that storm is nowhere in sight, according to Curtis Brack, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc.
"Right now, it looks like below-average rainfall through November," he said.
The moderate Santa Ana winds--typical for this time of year--abated Monday afternoon and died out by nightfall. Brack said an onshore flow of cool, moist air from the Pacific is expected to return this morning.
The high temperature today at the Los Angeles Civic Center should be 83 degrees, Brack said, with the high on Wednesday dipping to 79. Monday's top reading was 85.