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Cooler weather aids wildfire battle in Angeles National Forest and some evacuations are lifted

Hundreds of Duarte residents who were evacuated this week as a pair of wildfires burned in the Angeles National Forest will be allowed to return home Wednesday afternoon, officials said.

Improved weather conditions have aided firefighters battling the Reservoir and Fish fires in the San Gabriel mountains. Crews had contained part of the southern flank of the Fish fire, which on Monday forced the evacuations of hundreds of Duarte homes.

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Residents north of Royal Oaks Drive between Greenbank Avenue and Encanto Parkway will be allowed to return home at noon, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. David Halm said at a morning news conference. About 858 homes had been evacuated in the foothills areas this week, and about 534 households will be allowed to return, he said.

Returning residents, he said, will have to show identification. Horses and large animals are not yet being allowed back into the evacuated areas, where authorities have had a large presence as they guarded empty homes, Halm said.

The fires, which are being handled as a single incident called the San Gabriel Complex fire, have burned 4,900 acres and were 10% contained Wednesday morning. On Tuesday, authorities had estimated the size of the fire at 5,400 acres, but revised that figure based on infrared observations from aircraft made overnight.

The battle against the flames has been aided by a "cooling and moistening trend" in the days following Monday's record-breaking heat, according to authorities. However, steep, challenging terrain still presents a problem, said Mike Wakoski, a spokesman for the multi-agency wildfire effort.

"We've got to make as much progress as possible while the weather [is being] favorable for us right now,"Los Angeles County Fire Dept. Deputy Chief Vince Pena said.

"We're trying to secure as much as possible before the next heat wave comes."

Alex Bernardini, left, and his mother Regina move valuables back into their home two days after they were forced to evacuate as the Fish fire burned in the nearby hillsides. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Firefighters have also been instructed to avoid a 1,000-foot radius area around a nest where a baby bald eagle is getting ready to fledge, according to an official with the U.S. Forest Service.

The eagles' nest is not located in a part of the mountains where the fire is burning, and therefore not directly vulnerable to fire crews, according to Ann Berkley, a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service. The 1,000-foot buffer zone above and around the nest is mainly intended for helicopters, which create noise and air turbulence that could disturb the chick as it is getting ready to fledge.

"We don't want to startle him out of the nest because it could be very detrimental to his survival," Berkley said

The bald eagle is no longer considered an endangered species, but it is federally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Matt Mehle, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service, said high temperatures Wednesday would be in the 80s and 90s, with humidity in the double digits — much better conditions than when the fires started in Monday's record-breaking heat.

"Today's main concern will be stronger west and southwest winds," Mehle said. Those winds could be in alignment with the direction of the San Gabriel Canyon, where the fire is burning, making them more powerful.

Triple-digit heat is possible again this weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Improved weather has allowed fire authorities to divert resources from a brush fire burning in Santa Barbara County to the San Gabriel Complex fire.

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Most evacuations from the Sherpa fire in the Santa Ynez Mountains and Los Padres National Forest were lifted at 5 a.m. Wednesday as weather improved and firefighters increased containment, allowing crews to head south to Los Angeles and San Diego counties, Santa Barbara County officials said.

More than 1,000 firefighters have been battling the Reservoir and Fish fires, which have burned about 1.5 miles apart in the mountains above Duarte and Azusa. The blazes raged in a tinderbox region of the forest that had not burned for many years.

The Reservoir fire was reported first, about 11 a.m. Monday, at Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains, and was apparently ignited by a car crash that killed one person, authorities said. A vehicle went over the side of the road and plunged to the bottom of a canyon near Morris Reservoir, said John Tripp, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The Fish fire erupted more than an hour later near Brookridge and Opal Canyon roads in Duarte. The causes of both fires remain under investigation.

Other crews from the Sherpa fire were headed to San Diego County, where a wildfire fueled by dry brush and sweltering temperatures had scorched 6,020 acres just north of the U.S.-Mexico border and prompted mandatory evacuations for the entire east county community of Potrero. The Border fire was about 10% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

About 25 homes south of State Route 94 and east of State Route 188, near where the fire was initially sparked about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, were also evacuated.

The Border fire has destroyed four outbuildings and left three firefighters with minor injuries. The cause is under investigation.

Staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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UPDATES:

10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with new details from a morning press briefing.

7:56 a.m.: This article was updated with details on evacuations and Wednesday's forecast.

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This article was originally published at 6:39 a.m.

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