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Potential for Fierce Winds Poses New Fire Threat

Applying lessons learned just a week ago, Southern California is lining up fire crews and aircraft to get a jump on wildfires if the hot, dry Santa Ana winds expected to return this weekend cause major flare-ups.

None of more than two dozen air tankers and military helicopters that arrived from around the country to fight last month's blazes are returning to their home bases, said Francis Solich, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"If anything breaks loose, they'll be here," Solich said Friday.

The state also has 75 "strike teams" of five engines spread throughout Southern California, Solich said.

Also Friday, Marines began training with state firefighters at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, and will be available to join firefighting efforts this weekend if needed.

"We are training them on how to work in our air space. The Marines are great pilots, but they don't have any experience in how we fight fires," said CDF Capt. Matt Streck.

When more than 15 fires began breaking out across Southern California two weeks ago, it took more than 24 hours for nearly two dozen firefighting helicopters to get into the air.

By the time aircraft began arriving in large numbers, the winds were gusting at 100 mph or more in some areas, making it too dangerous to use them for firefighting.

State officials initially said the winds were to blame for the slow airborne response to the fires. That version of events was later challenged by San Diego-area congressmen, some local fire officials and by government records that show it was bureaucracy that kept many aircraft grounded.

Also, the California National Guard's C-130 cargo planes - among the most powerful aerial firefighting weapons - never got off the tarmac because they were never fitted with the bladders needed to carry thousands of gallons of retardant. That was something that had been promised four years ago.

A shortage of spotters who are required to accompany military choppers to coordinate drops of fire retardant and water also prevented some of the aircraft from getting into the air quickly.

In all, the fires destroyed more than 2,000 homes across a swath of Southern California stretching from north of Los Angeles to south of San Diego.

As firefighters prepared for this weekend's winds, several small fires continued to burn in sparsely populated areas. Also, two large ones had yet to be fully contained.

The forecast this weekend called for Santa Ana winds gusting to 50 mph near the cities of San Bernardino and Fontana, east of Los Angeles, and in the mountains near hard-hit Santa Clarita, in Los Angeles County.

Similar gusts were expected in the hamlet of Campo, about 60 miles east of San Diego on the Mexican border, and in the sparsely populated mountains of Orange County.

The winds, which blow east to west from the deserts and through mountain canyons this time of year, are hot and dry, sending humidity plunging and turning wooded areas into tinderboxes.

Associated Press writers Aaron C. Davis in Sacramento, Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles, Rachel Konrad in San Jose and Allison Hoffman in San Diego contributed to this report.

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