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Cooler Temps Aid Crews Fighting Calif. Wildfire

LANCASTER, Calif. (AP) -- Cooler temperatures and rising humidity allowed firefighters working in darkness to build significant lines around one edge of a wildfire feeding on old brush that forced nearly 3,000 people from two foothill communities north of Los Angeles.

"The flames really laid down overnight," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said early Monday.

Crews were able halt the progress of the fire's northeastern front, which had been moving into unoccupied desert lands north of Angeles National Forest, Judy said. Firefighters remained in place to protect structures in the rural hamlets of Lake Hughes and Lake Elizabeth, but flames were moving away from residential areas.

The blaze has burned about 34 square miles in mountain and canyons areas, destroying at least six houses and damaging 15 more.

The fire, which was 20 percent contained, was fueled in part by chaparral that was "extremely old and dry" and hadn't burned since 1929, U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Norm Walker said Sunday at a news conference.

More than 2,800 people and 700 homes were under evacuation orders that were expected to last until late Monday or Tuesday.

The California fire appeared to be the fiercest of several burning in the West, including two in New Mexico, where thick smoke covered several communities and set a blanket of haze over Santa Fe. Crews fighting the two uncontained wildfires focused Sunday on building protection lines around them, hoping predicted storms could bring moisture to help reduce the intensity of the fires.

In Southern California, about 2,100 firefighters took on the flames, aided by water-dropping aircraft, including three helicopters that stayed aloft through the night.

"We're putting everything that we have into this," Walker said.

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

Winds of about 25 mph and gusting as high as 40 mph had created "havoc" for firefighters for much of Sunday, LA County Deputy Chief David Richardson said.

Propelled by the strong winds, the fire jumped an aqueduct west of Lancaster, officials said.

George Ladd, 61, said among the structures burned was a cabin at Lake Hughes his family had owned since 1954 but sold just last week. He said he expected it may go up in flames sooner.

"We had always worried about that thing going off like a bomb," Ladd said.

He walked through the ashes of his former cabin and the other destroyed homes Sunday.

"All of them are nothing," Ladd said by phone from his home in nearby Palmdale later Sunday night. "A few scraps, a few pieces of wood with nails sticking out, but mostly just broken up concrete."

In New Mexico, a fire burning in Santa Fe National Forest 25 miles from Santa Fe grew to nearly 12 square miles by Sunday evening, causing thick smoke to cover parts of Gallinas Canyon and Las Vegas, N.M.

The fire near the communities of Pecos and Tres Lagunas had prompted the evacuations of about 140 homes, most of them summer residences.

Crews also cleared out campgrounds and closed trailheads in the area as they worked to prevent the fire from moving toward the capital city's watershed and more populated areas.

Another New Mexico blaze, the Thompson Ridge fire near Jemez Springs, grew to nearly 3 square miles. Forty to 50 homes that were evacuated late last week remained so on Sunday.

Forestry service officials said neither blaze and destroyed any homes, but one house suffered minor damage.


Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Andrew Dalton also contributed to this story from Los Angeles.

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