Southern California Wildfires

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Weather is on firefighters' side - for now
Cool, moist air is aiding the battle against the last of the Southern California wildfires, but Santa Ana winds are expected to return by this weekend. More

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Firefighter Josh Balboa monitors the Harris fire in southern San Diego County.

Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Former Navy planes from the 1930s used in fire

Lake Elsinore:

One of the last remaining models of the largest flying boat ever mass produced was expected to take off from Lake Elsinore today to fight California's raging wildfires.

Brought from Canada to help in the firefighting effort, the Martin Mars JRM III was expected to take off from Seaport Boat Launch at Lake Elsinore before noon today, headed first for the Harris fire in San Diego County, said Wayne Coulson, whose company, Coulson Flying Tankers, owns two Martin Mars JRM III planes.

The aircraft carries 7,200 gallons of water, enough to cover an area of four acres. The aircraft was loaded with a mix of water and Thermo-Gel, a material that helps expedite firefighting.

A smaller aircraft owned by the California Fire Department was expected to fly ahead to tell the pilot of the Martin Mars JRM III where to drop a combination of water and Thermo-Gel.

"It's like a four-acre blanket laid ... when the fire burns up to the Thermo-Gel, it puts it out," said Wayne Coulson.

Coulson Flying Tankers owns the last two remaining Martin Mars JRM III, which were used by the U.S. Navy in the late 1930s for ocean patrol, Coulson said.

Coulson Flying Tankers renovated the planes. The company, based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, contracts with fire departments to combat fires.

Coulson bought the two aircraft six months ago and began discussions with fire authorities in California in the weeks before the fires.

Coulson would not say how much he paid for the planes, other than to say they were a "significant investment." Nor would he say how much he is receiving from California the service.

Perry Esquer, aircraft manager from the San Diego Fire Department, said the exact fee had not been determined yet.

"We heard the governor say that we need to do what it takes to put these fires out. With that being said, there has not been a lot said about numbers. The idea is to get water on this fire first," Esquer said.

--Jennifer Delson

Rosa fire in Riverside County contained


Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told reporters in Sacramento at 8 p.m. that a fourth fire had been contained-- the 411-acre Rosa fire in Riverside County. The fire started near Temecula.

-- Patrick McGreevy

New evacuation shelter in southwest Riverside County

Winchester, Riverside County:

Riverside County has opened the Lake Skinner Recreation Area as a temporary evacuation site for people who have fled the wildfires in motor homes or pulling campers or tent trailers. Authorities are hoping these people will move off the streets, where they have been parking since they were ordered to leave.

More than 300 sites are available, some with water, sewer and electricity; some with water and electric; some with water only; and some suited only for dry camping. Food will not be available at the facility, and there are limited numbers of showers.

Evacuees may enter the Lake Skinner area at any hour while the facility is being used as a temporary shelter. The address is 37001 Warren Road in Winchester.

New fire outbreak in Wildemar area of Riv. Co.


A third fire broke out in Riverside County shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, fire officials said. The blaze in the Wildemar area joins the Rosa fire in Temecula, which investigators determined was intentially set, and the Rocha fire.

Riverside County Fire Capt. Justin Scribner said investigators the department has set a hotline (1 800 633-2836) for information about possible arson in the Rosa fire. The blaze, which broke out at 11 p.m. Monday, has charred 411 acres. No property damage or injuries were reported.

The Rocha Fire in Aguanga, in southeastern Riverside County, broke out Sunday and destroyed one mobile home, before firefighers brought it under control Monday.

-- Andrew Blankstein

Fighting fires with bullet-pocked air clunkers


Hemet Airport has been supporting aircraft for fires to the north, outside of San Diego County. Gillespie Field in the southern part of the county is launching helicopters.

There are 12 choppers on the Witch fire, eight on the Harris and half a dozen on the Rice fire.

Ramona airport people also are supporting the Poomacha fire in Palomar, the Witch Fire and the Rice fire

Ramona-based retardant crew foreman Gawain Saunders said: "Each member of my team is just as important as the next guy. It's a tough day, but we're all very happy about what we're doing."

So far this year, he's been to fires in Arizona and Utah.

Ray Chaney, the spotter, came in for a half-hour break at noon, grabbed a cheeseburger and told everybody, "the whole county is on fire."

In an interview, he said that when he was up there "it's pretty ominous to see. You're looking at an entire column of fire from the Mexican border to the Palomars."

At 1 p.m. there was a conference call with guy named John Richardson, who had just arrived at Ramona, and was in charge of all air operations in San Diego County. He's the incident command team air operation branch director from CalFire.

He took part in a 45-minute conference call where officials in charge of air resources throughout Southern California talked about their problems and jockeyed for resources. "When you need a priority aircraft, you can't get anyone. I hate going outside the chain of command, but it might be 20 minutes before you can get anyone on the phone," said Richardson.

He's got 5 planes and teams for three major fires. You can make them go only so long, seven hours at a time. Unless he gets a new team, one of the fires will have no spotters this afternoon.

At 12:45, there was a report of a fire at the airport itself. There were no firefighters handy, so they had to call some in. At 1:15, the airport manager wanted to shut down the airport, but the firefighters got there just in time.

Richardson said a lot of the planes coming in and out were 40 and 50 years old; some were military aircraft used in Vietnam. Some have bullet holes. "It's like fighting a fire with a bunch of 1950s Mustangs with a nice paint job."

Aircraft are coming in from other states. Lutz keeps asking for a DC-10. The present planes carry 1,200 gallons, a DC-10, double that.

-- Garrett Therolf

New Temecula evacuation site


Those fleeing fires in Riverside and northern San Diego counties are being directed to Temecula Valley High School at 31555 Rancho Vista Road (cross street Margarita). The old shelter at the Temecula Community Center is full

Mt. Palomar fire threatens observatory

Fire officials at their command center in Riverside said the Mt. Palomar fire has exploded to 20,000 acres and could threaten the famed observatory at the top, one of the world's largest telescopes.

They also said two fires have broken out in Camp Pendleton, the Wilcox Fire at 1,200 acres and the Ammo Fire at 350 acres. The Ammo fire has raised concerns because it is at the base of San Onofre Peak and was climbing toward an array of telecommunications equipment at the top. The San Onofre nuclear power plant is on the other side.

Chief of Operations Chief Bob Green said he was asked by the governor to send in air tankers to lay down water between the fire and the communications equipment on top.

-David Kelly at Calfire Command Center in Riverside

Rosa fire half contained

Riverside County Fire spokesperson Massiel Ladron De Guevara said that by 12:25 p.m. the so-called Rosa Fire had burned 411 acres -- mostly of heavy vegetation -- west of Interstate 15.

About 200 firefighters are battling the blaze and had it 50% contained, with full containment expected sometime Wednesday. She said a voluntary evacuation was in effect in De Luz, an unincorportated area of the county.

-- Christopher Goffard

100 evacuated in Temecula

Some 200 firefighters are battling a new brush fire that broke out in heavy brush around 11 p.m. Monday in Temecula near Via Santa Rosa and Rancho California Road.

About 100 people were evacuated after the Rosa blaze began, according to a 2:30 a.m. recorded update from the Riverside County Fire Department, which works jointly with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Residents were directed to an evacuation center at Temecula Recreation Center at 30875 Rancho Vista Road. Southern California Edison officials are responding to reports of live power lines down in the area.

The fire's cause is still under investigation. Officials plan to reevaluate evacuation orders this morning.

--Maeve Reston