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Firefighters gain upper hand on Calif. blaze

Monday - 6/3/2013, 11:57pm  ET

Fire burns a ridge a half-mile the rural community of Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County. Calif., Monday, June 3, 2013. At least six houses have been destroyed by the Powerhouse fire, nine more were damaged, and 2,800 people fled 700 homes in Lake Hughes and Lake Elizabeth, 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

ROBERT JABLON
Associated Press

PALMDALE, Calif. (AP) -- All that was left of his two-story home with a stunning panoramic view was black twisted metal and ashes.

On Monday afternoon, Gregg Johnson surveyed the damage along with the nearly 3,000 others allowed to return to their homes in the rural communities threatened by a massive Southern California wildfire.

Johnson, 59, left his home Saturday with his wife and 12-year-old son after watching the fire race down around Lake Hughes below them and then surround their mountaintop home.

"At that point, you know, the deal was done," Johnson said. "Of course I was holding out hope ... maybe the people who told me my house had burned down were wrong."

The remnants of the fire's destructive path left charred hillsides speckled with white ash over 50 square miles in northern Los Angeles County as residents returned to 700 homes they had fled in the rural communities 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The Powerhouse Fire was 60 percent contained Monday evening as firefighters finally gained the upper hand on a blaze that had doubled in size over the weekend and spread rapidly through more than 32,000 acres of old, dry chaparral with the help of gusty winds and triple-digit temperatures.

Cooler, moist air on Monday helped thousands of firefighters battling flames that moved out into easier, sparser terrain -- from the rugged mountains of the Angeles National forest onto the floor of the high desert Antelope Valley.

Full containment was expected in a week as terrain, and officials expressed guarded optimism Monday.

"What a difference a day makes," said LA County Deputy Chief David Richardson.

Firefighters expected cooler temperatures, lighter winds and rising humidity to help them make more progress overnight, said U.S. Forest Services spokesman Nathan Judy. Water-dropping helicopters would continue to fly through the night, he said.

"We're supposed to have a good marine layer into the morning, we're hoping for it not too heat up too early," said a U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ed Gililland.

The fire was most active Monday in the northwest, pushing through a brushy area and had not burned since the 1930s, said Ronald Ashdale, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. On Monday winds had swept across a dozer line set up by firefighters, pushing the area of containment out by another 5 acres.

But with only widely scattered homes in the area, firefighters were able to work more on attacking flames than on structure protection. At least six houses have been destroyed by the fire, and nine more damaged.

The fire continued to threaten about 275 homes Monday evening, down from 1,000 earlier in the day.

Monique Hernandez, 37, saw the fire jump Lake Hughes and decided to flee the mountaintop home she and her parents rented in March.

The family put their dog, photos and clothes into a van and sped down a mile-long dirt road. An hour later, they learned their home had burned.

"I saw it on the news," Hernandez said at the Red Cross shelter in Palmdale with her 3-year-old daughter, Angelique. "It was all gone. It was down to ashes."

About 2,100 firefighters took on the flames, aided by water-dropping helicopters and airplanes unleashing loads of retardant across the flanks of the fire.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. Three firefighters had minor injuries, but no one else was hurt.

Smoke from the Southern California wildfire and from Nevada fires hung over Las Vegas, where Clark County officials advised Monday that it could bother sensitive people such as those with respiratory conditions.

In the West, two major wildfires were burning in northern New Mexico, and weather conditions were not expected to be helpful to firefighters.

The Tres Lagunas fire north of Pecos in Santa Fe National Forest had grown to 12 1/2 square miles, causing smoke to spread across much of the region.

It previously prompted the evacuation of about 140 houses, mostly summer residences, but no structures had been burned.

Drier and windier weather was moving in, said interagency fire management team spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano. "It's going to be challenging," she said.

Firefighters were working to protect a group of homes in Holy Ghost Canyon and prevent the fire from spreading east, where it could endanger a river watershed that supplies Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, the Thompson Ridge fire near Jemez Springs remained at nearly 3 square miles. Forty to 50 houses were evacuated late last week.

A light gray haze blanketed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east of Santa Fe and a thicker haze nearly obscured a view from Santa Fe of the Jemez Mountains to the west.

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