Woolsey fire flares to life as evacuations lift in some communities

Southern California’s huge wildfire roared to life again Tuesday in a mountain wilderness area even as many neighborhoods were reopened to thousands of residents who fled its advance last week.

A massive plume of smoke rose suddenly Tuesday morning in the Santa Monica Mountains near the community of Lake Sherwood, prompting authorities to send aircraft to drop retardant and water on the blaze.

At an 11 a.m. news conference, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said the fire “came into alignment” at the bottom of a canyon and “significant” winds helped push the fire upward.

“I can tell the community that we are very confident they are safe there,” Lorenzen said. “The wind is currently pushing the fire up and away from populated areas.”

As of Tuesday morning, the Woolsey Fire had burned 96,314 acres acres and was 35 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

An estimated 435 structures have been destroyed by the blaze, with another 57,000 threatened.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said during a Tuesday morning news conference that he expected the number of destroyed structures to rise “significantly” as assessment teams make their way through the burned areas.

“As it relates to the containment and control of this fire, we’re feeling better,” Osby said.

Osby said authorities’ main concern is “everything west of us” as well as the south side of the fire, near Malibu Canyon.

“There are still pockets of unburned brush, there are still a lot of hot spots, with these winds there’s still a huge potential of embers burning those pockets of brush,” he said.

Winds are expected to subside, but authorities are gearing up for onshore winds on Thursday and Friday that could shift the wind direction, Osby said. He noted also that, with rain in the forecast for next week, “that could potentially create concerns for mudflows.”

Fire officials lifted evacuation orders early Tuesday in all or parts of about five communities in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

But large, populated areas remained off-limits and authorities warned residents of those areas to stay out, saying there were hazards including downed power lines, embers that could re-ignite, buckled roads and lack of power and communications.

The cause of the Southern California fires remained under investigation.

Southern California Edison reported to the California Public Utilities Commission “out of an abundance of caution” that there was an outage on an electrical circuit near where the fire started Thursday.

The report said there was no indication its equipment was involved in the fire reported two minutes after the outage.

Downed powerlines and blown transformers have been blamed for several of the deadly fires that have burned in recent years.

California regulators said initial testing found no elevated levels of radiation or hazardous compounds after the fire burned near a former nuclear test site in hills northwest of Los Angeles.

The state Department of Toxic Substance Control said its staff went to the site known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory on Saturday and found that facilities that previously handled radioactive and hazardous materials were not affected by the Woolsey fire.

The organization Physicians for Social Responsibility said in a statement Monday that it was likely that smoke and ash from the fire spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in soil and vegetation.

The site was used for decades for testing rocket engines and nuclear energy research. One of its nuclear reactors had a partial meltdown in 1959 and battles over decontamination efforts have gone on for years, with neighbors blaming illnesses on the site.

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