PALMDALE, Calif. – Water-dropping aircraft slowed the progress of a wildfire that was bearing down on hundreds of homes in the high desert north of Los Angeles.
The blaze had consumed 20 square miles of brush, jumped an aqueduct and menaced power lines that deliver electricity to Southern California.
Winds apparently carried embers across the wide concrete channel, with flames rapidly spreading to backyard fences at the edge of Palmdale. Plumes of smoke streamed across the city of 139,000 as winds picked up Friday evening.
Two giant airtankers swooped into the Antelope Valley to drop red flame retardant around the perimeter while helicopters hovered over the aqueduct to suck up water and release it quickly on top of the smoldering hotspots.
"They make a big difference but it's a coordinated aggressive attack with firefighters laying hose, doing structure protection and perimeter control," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Frederic Stowers. "It's a tough situation but we're steadily taking chunks out of this fire, protecting the infrastructure — power lines, roads and the like."
Stowers said 1,700 personnel worked in high heat to outflank the blaze and build containment lines around 20 percent of the fire.
Fire officials expect low humidity and high temperatures again on Saturday with winds gusts of up to 50 mph in the foothills in the evening.
About 2,300 structures were threatened. Evacuation orders were lifted Friday morning, but some roads remain closed.
One house and three mobile home residences were destroyed, another house had roof damage and various other outbuildings and garages were lost in the horse country region, authorities said.
Most of the homes closer to Palmdale, however, are of recent construction with fire resistant roofs, stucco walls, boxed eaves and landscaped with fire-resistant vegetation, fire officials said.
Maria Norton, 19, expected to be home Friday evening preparing for Saturday's Miss Antelope Valley pageant.
Instead, this year's Miss Leona Valley is in a motel, worrying about her horse, Sally, after fire destroyed her family's stable on Thursday.
"It's kind of all a big nightmare," Norton said.
Sheriff's deputies told her family there was no time to load the horse into a trailer so the college sophomore packed her purple pageant dress and fled, freeing Sally just before flames engulfed the barn.
A few hours later, Norton learned that animal rescuers had taken the horse to local fairgrounds where large animals were being sheltered during the fire.
The fire broke out near a state highway that snakes through the San Gabriel Mountains, connecting Los Angeles to the high desert.
Deputy Fire Chief Michael Bryant said an investigation into the cause of the fire is centering on workers who were hammering on some bolts to remove a tire rim. The workers were cooperating with the investigation.
The blaze spread rapidly after breaking out at midafternoon Thursday, triggering overnight evacuations of about 2,000 homes.
Southern California Edison said the fire threatened five high-voltage transmission lines, but the California grid operator had put additional generation resources online and customers were not expected to be affected if the utility lost those lines.
Elsewhere, good weather in neighboring Kern County helped firefighters build containment lines around two wildfires that destroyed homes in remote mountain communities earlier in the week.
Near Tehachapi, evacuation orders were lifted for 150 homes. Damage assessment teams counted 23 homes that were destroyed and eight that were damaged by a fire that sped through the heavy brush on Tuesday afternoon. The fire was 46 percent contained at 2 ½ square miles.
To the north, a fire that destroyed eight residences and a few outbuildings as it spread across about 26 square miles of the Sequoia National Forest in the Sierra Nevada was 65 percent contained.