LOS ANGELES – A wildfire that torched more than 24,000 acres on the edge of the city left a surprising legacy — it destroyed just three homes, a remarkably small number given the size and ferocity of the blaze.
A break in dry, windy weather and a speedy, pinpoint response by thousands of firefighters combined to spare scores of homes that stood in the path of the flames, officials said.
"It's thinking ahead of where you think the fire is going to be — looking at weather reports, wind speed, humidity, past burn patterns," said Battalion Chief Lou Roupoli of the Los Angeles Fire Department (search).
"It's like fighting a war," Roupoli added. "Everybody has a piece of the puzzle. Everybody has a chain of command they report to."
Coming just weeks after the chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina, the textbook effort in Los Angeles County prompted this reaction from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search): "Spectacular."
"We have the best fire department ... the best firefighters, the best fire chiefs, the best coordination, great communication," the governor said.
The fire began Wednesday afternoon in the Chatsworth area of northwest Los Angeles, then spread quickly in high winds.
By Saturday afternoon, firefighting equipment was heading elsewhere, the blaze mostly put down.
There were seven injuries, none serious. Neighborhoods that had been evacuated were reopened to residents, and shelters were closed.
"There is very little — if any — active fire out there," said Kurt Schaefer, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "We are getting the upper hand."
Beyond skilled firefighting, there were two other factors.
The dry, desert winds that fanned the fire were pushed out Thursday by a stream of moist ocean air. And residents had planned ahead by cutting brush around their homes to create safety buffers.
"Brush clearance creates the defensible space that's needed, at least 100 feet surrounding the house," said Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Michael Brown, referring to a state law that requires homes in high fire risk areas to cut surrounding brush. "Areas that did burn were not cleared."
Moreover, firefighters have learned from the past, including the 2003 San Diego (search) fires, when a bungled response was blamed for the loss of hundreds of homes.
This time, helicopters were used even at night to drop water. Firefighters from various agencies — the fire burned along the Los Angeles and Ventura county lines — coordinated on how best to deploy personnel and equipment.
"We've been able to put those things we've learned in the past in place and save many more structures," Brown said.
Meanwhile, firefighters battled another wildfire Saturday in Burbank that blackened about 1,140 acres. About 70 homes in the rugged area 10 miles north of downtown Los Angeles were evacuated as a precaution.
Hundreds of emergency personnel were fighting a third fire about 70 miles east of Los Angeles in and around the San Bernardino National Forest. The blaze had charred 1,000 acres, said Robin Prince, spokeswoman for the national forest.
About 1,200 people were evacuated from several small communities Friday. Some residents were being allowed to return late Saturday, but mandatory evacuations remained for a few areas.