California fire danger remains high even as winds ease

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Two firetrucks are seen on top of a hill as the sun sets as the Bond Fire burns in Silverado, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

LOS ANGELES – Fire danger remained high Friday amid unpredictable wind gusts and dry conditions in Southern California, as crews made progress against blazes that burned several homes and injured two firefighters.

The region's notorious Santa Ana winds decreased slightly but red flag warnings of extreme wildfire risk were in place into the weekend because of low humidity. After the weather calms in the southern part of the state, winds are expected to increase in Northern California starting Sunday, forecasters said.

Firefighters were still busy trying to contain a number of blazes south and east of Los Angeles. The biggest began late Wednesday as a house fire in Orange County’s Silverado Canyon that spread to dry brush by fierce winds. Some 25,000 people were ordered to flee their homes, although some evacuations orders were later lifted.

Larry and Carol Pfaffy owned the canyon house where the blaze is believed to have started. The couple told KNBC-TV that they had started up a generator after the power was shut off by Southern California Edison as a precaution against high winds knocking down power lines and sparking a fire.

Larry Pfaffy said they turned off the generator before going to bed Wednesday night but a half-hour later they heard something fall in the garage and smelled smoke. They still don't know the cause of the fire.

Pfaffy said he tried to put out the blaze but failed. The home he had built 40 years ago was destroyed.

“First time I saw our house, I knew it was gone," Larry Pfaffy said. “But I was scared to death of the neighbors getting burnt, too."

The fire grew to 11.5 square miles (about 30 square kilometers) and blanketed a wide area with smoke and ash. It was 30% contained as calmer conditions helped hundreds of firefighters who fought the flames on the ground and by air.

“Firefighters took advantage of the less severe weather conditions today to construct and reinforce fire lines, which are currently holding. They will continue to work through the night to extend these fire lines," a fire update stated.

Two U.S. Forest Service firefighters were hospitalized after being hurt while battling the blaze, though it wasn't known how the injuries occurred. One was treated for a leg injury and the other suffered bruising and both were released Wednesday night, the Forest Service said on Twitter.

Some residents said they didn't receive evacuation alerts because Southern California Edison had shut off power as a precaution before the fire erupted, leaving them without cellphone service.

The fire was not far from the site of October’s Silverado Fire, which also forced thousands from their homes and left two firefighters critically burned.

Crews mostly tamed two small fires that prompted evacuations in Riverside County east of Los Angeles.

And to the south, a small blaze in San Diego County that threatened about 200 residences was fully contained Thursday after destroying one home and damaging six others in a neighborhood near El Cajon.

Santa Ana winds hit 50 mph (80.5 kph) to 85 mph (137 kph) at times throughout the region beginning Wednesday night.

Numerous studies have linked bigger wildfires in America to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.

The fires erupted as Southern California utilities cut the power to more than 100,000 customers to avoid the threat of winds knocking down or fouling power lines and causing wildfires — something that has sparked devastating fires in recent years.

Southern California Edison cut power to nearly 50,000 homes and businesses but as winds eased the utility began restoring electricity and had restored power to most customers by Friday evening.

San Diego Gas & Electric's precautionary blackouts affected around 73,000 customers at the peak but most also had their electricity restored by Friday evening.

California already has experienced its worst-ever year for wildfires. More than 6,500 square miles (16,835 square kilometers) have been scorched, a total larger than the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. At least 31 people have been killed and 10,500 homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.

The latest fire threat comes as much of California plunges deeper into drought. Virtually all of Northern California is in severe or extreme drought while nearly all of Southern California is abnormally dry or worse.

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Associated Press reporter Amy Taxin contributed from Orange County, California.