A fourth day of smoke and fire dawned Wednesday in Orange County, Calif., with new reason for hope: fresh firefighters on the lines, new air tankers roaring overhead, a forecast that no longer included gale-force winds.
The Santiago fire was 50 percent contained, the Orange County Fire Authority reported Wednesday morning. It was the first real sign of significant progress: The fire had been listed as 30 percent contained since early Monday morning.
But it was still moving, and it was still threatening homes. In Live Oak Canyon, a hotshot crew was racing to dig a protective line in front of about 75 houses as flames rolled toward them. Fire officials said the homes, near the intersection of Live
Oak Canyon and Old State roads, were in imminent danger.
But hundreds of morning commuters learned the hard way that the threat of wildfire was still a long way from easing. Flames from a new fire swept across the I-5 freeway near Camp Pendleton overnight, bringing traffic there to a standstill and paralyzing train service.
The southbound lanes of the freeway have reopened, but not before early commuters found themselves stranded in a sea of brake lights and idling cars that stretched into San Clemente. The northbound lanes recently reopened near Camp Pendleton.
In the canyons of Orange County, some 600 firefighters were still struggling to bring the Santiago fire under control. In the air, four helicopters and four air tankers were backing them up, after two days of pleas from local fire officials for more resources.
The fire has destroyed at least nine homes, damaged eight others and burned 20 outbuildings, according to the Orange County Fire Authority. The locations of those homes were not immediately available, although at least three were in Modjeska Canyon.
The fire had burned so fiercely there Tuesday afternoon that, at times, firefighters and even helicopters had to pull back.
Thousands of people had been ordered to leave the canyon communities as the fire blustered toward them on unpredictable Santa Ana winds. Forced evacuations were still in place Wednesday morning for several of the canyon areas, including Modjeska Canyon, Silverado Canyon and Trabuco Canyon.
The fire swerved in the night and was moving east and southeast into the foothills and canyons off Santiago Canyon Road. It was on a path toward the fuel-rich Cleveland National Forest, and county fire officials had begun synchronizing their efforts with those of the U.S. Forest Service.
The National Weather Service was forecasting another day of “critical fire weather” Wednesday, with winds gusting to 40 mph and dust-dry conditions.
But its morning update ended on a more optimistic note: winds easing in the afternoon, and a cooler sea breeze pushing in from the coast.
The fire has swept through 19,200 acres since it started Sunday, and according to fire officials had three separate ignition points set intentionally and calculated to provoke maximum damage.
The fire’s toll was obvious along the rolling hills south of Modjeska Canyon, where flames had left behind little but scorched, skeletal trees and singed cactuses. Wires dangled from burned telephone and electrical poles.
“Unbelievable,” said J.P. Deguay after he returned to the home he helped build on Modjeska Canyon Road. His home survived; a few yards away, though, his neighbor’s home had burned to the ground.
A few hundred people were still without power, after fierce winds and fire tore through some electrical lines. But Southern California Edison was keeping a close eye on the high-voltage transmission lines at the San Onofre Nuclear Generator Station as the Camp Pendleton fire raged nearby.
Those lines were San Diego County’s last link to imported energy, after fires destroyed the other high-tension lines it relies upon.