- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

MOORPARK, Calif. | Firefighters guarded rural homes, ranches and orchards Wednesday as a wind-driven wildfire grew to more than 25 square miles on a march through rugged land between small Southern California communities.

The fire was stoked by hot and dry Santa Ana winds, but firefighters said the wind speeds were lower than on the first day of the blaze.

Containment of the fire, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, also increased to 40 percent, but it was not expected to be fully surrounded until Saturday. Firefighters cut and burned away brush along a canyon road to try to contain part of the fire’s western flank.

Fire officials said the blaze began Tuesday in the area of an agricultural mulch pile, but the cause remained under investigation. The Sheriff’s Department earlier said it was apparently caused by spontaneous combustion in manure.

Winds and fuels such as grasses and light brush made the fire dangerous, said incident commander Robert Lewin.

“Our firefighters need to be on guard, make sure they’re out of harm’s way when they’re engaged in this fire, and so do the citizens,” he said.

About 1,000 homes were considered threatened as the fire burned east and west just north of Moorpark, a city of 37,000. The 15,000-student Moorpark College was closed because of its proximity to the fire.

Reverse 911 calls recommending evacuations were made to 2,200 phones in unincorporated areas, but officials couldn’t say how many people actually left.

One of those calls went to the home of school bus driver Maria Kadowaki in Somis, west of Moorpark.

“I wasn’t too frightened, but my husband freaked out,” she said. “He ran outside and started watering the garage in the dark.”

They chose not to leave their home, and Wednesday afternoon she and another driver were out checking which roads would be open or closed when they took children home after school.

Two outbuildings were destroyed but no homes had been damaged.

The fire was also threatening agricultural properties, a major concern in a county where the industry was valued at $1.6 billion last year.

“There are very, very valuable avocado groves and other agricultural values out there, and we are doing everything we can to protect those,” Mr. Lewin said.

Helicopters dumped water on flames moving toward orchards, and ground crews put out burning shrubbery at the edges of groves. County fire Capt. Ron Oatman said the fire likely had burned some peripheral trees, but agricultural damage had not been confirmed.

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