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Fire-Fueling Wind Weakening in Calif.

January 7, 2003

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The seasonal Santa Ana wind that has stoked wildfires and snapped power poles across Southern California began to weaken Tuesday as firefighters tried to rein in a blaze threatening Malibu homes and utility crews worked to restore electricity.

The erratic wind plagued efforts to contain the Malibu blaze, which grew to 2,200 acres as it hopscotched around hundreds of houses in the rugged Santa Monica Mountains.

``It jumped around _ all over, boy,″ said actor Cheech Marin, who installed sprinklers around his home after losing a barn and garage to a 1978 fire. ``What I knew from the fires last time is they are extremely capricious.″

The blaze has damaged three homes. It was 10 percent contained as of Tuesday, but wind-driven embers continued to spark fires outside containment lines. The wind was blowing at 20 to 30 mph in the canyons with gusts up to 60 mph on the ridges.

More than 1,000 firefighters were on the fire lines. The cause of the blaze was under investigation but a downed power line was suspected, said Inspector Michael Brown of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

No fire-related injuries have been reported, but two California Highway Patrol officers were hit by a car while directing traffic away from the blaze Monday. They were hospitalized in stable condition.

Firefighters were busy elsewhere, too. Off the coast, a 110-acre fire on Santa Catalina Island was 15 percent contained, with no homes in immediate danger. A 150-acre fire that damaged five homes in a rural area near Norco, about 45 miles east of Los Angeles, was 50 percent contained.

A 45-year-old woman was arrested for investigation of arson in the Norco fire, said Tracy Hobday, a Riverside County fire spokesman.

The National Weather Service downgraded high wind warnings to advisory status at midday Tuesday but cautioned that offshore flow of air remained strong and gusts could still reach 60 mph in the mountains and 40 mph below the passes and canyons.

``These are very dry winds that take the moisture out of the air and away from plants. The plants lose the moisture and become drier. And that really hurts when you’re fighting brush fires,″ said Stuart Seto of the National Weather Service.

The Santa Ana wind roared into Southern California late Sunday after high pressure set in over the West and gusted up to 79 mph, sending air racing toward the Pacific coast. Trees and trucks were blown over and power poles toppled, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people.

Nearly 40,000 Southern California Edison and 2,300 Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers remained without power Tuesday.

Two deaths were linked to the strong wind: A San Diego woman struck by a falling tree and a passenger in a car hit by a flying pickup truck cover on a freeway in Riverside.

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