Cooler weather gives Calif. firefighters a break

Wind eases, but season of blazes under way early


LOS ANGELES - Cooler temperatures and higher humidity yesterday helped firefighters battling wildfires that threatened several communities in Southern California.

In the worst outbreak, 50 miles east of Los Angeles in Riverside County, firefighters working Tuesday night reported temperatures in the 60s, 20 degrees cooler than the night before, a trend that boded well for yesterday's efforts, said Janet Marshall of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"The cooler weather overnight is helping us get a jump on containment of the fires today," she said yesterday. "That's going to give us an edge, level the playing field, so to speak."

And the winds had died down. "Wind is one of the most challenging enemies," she said.

The early fires, which have been an ominous echo of blazes that struck Southern California last fall, forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes Tuesday as 2,700 firefighters battled flames on a half-dozen fronts.

The areas affected ranged from Santa Barbara County, north of here, southward to San Diego County. Many communities are still devastated from the autumn fires.

"We're starting very early," said Gloria White, a dispatcher for the forestry department, which along with other agencies declared Monday the beginning of the fire season, three weeks earlier than last year.

The latest blazes sprang to life amid ideal conditions for wildfires: little rain and higher-than-normal temperatures. In addition, a plague of bark beetles has turned huge swaths of forest into kindling, as it did last fall, adding enormously to the potential fuel for fires.

Fire officials are bracing for a further rash of blazes in coming weeks as the heat takes lasting hold and conditions ripen.

"The fire chiefs have already said this could be the worst fire season ever," said Dale Chessey, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.

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