California fire crews, homeowners brace for return of winds

LOS ANGELES (AP) — After a welcome lull in powerful winds that drove Southern California’s massive wildfire, crews and homeowners were bracing Wednesday braced for the return of potentially dangerous gusts that could revive the flames.

Some residents are watching from afar at hotels and evacuation centers, while others are waiting in their homes and hoping for the best.

Katy and Bob Zappala have stayed in their home in Santa Barbara, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, despite a mandatory evacuation order that’s been in place since Saturday.

“Our cars are packed, we have all our clothes and jewelry, so we’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice should we have to,” Katy Zappala, 74, said Wednesday. “We’re ready to leap in and leave, and we’re just keeping a good eye on the sky.”

The Zappalas and their cat, Madeline, haven’t left home since the evacuation order was put into place because authorities wouldn’t allow them back in. They’re starting to run out of food and are hoping that if they make it through the next wave of winds, the ordeal will be over.

“It’s a critical day,” Zappala said. “You’re always nervous when the winds come up.”

Communities remain threatened in Ventura and Santa Barba counties.

Firefighters used two days of calm conditions to build containment lines and set controlled fires to clear dry brush ahead of so-called sundowner winds expected to whip up Wednesday afternoon.

“We are still on guard,” fire information officer Rudy Evenson said. “It’s been a very unpredictable fire and we just don’t know what these winds are going to do.”

The blaze that’s burned is 60 percent contained and now the second-largest in California history. Officials said the new winds could cause it to grow into the state’s biggest fire ever.

Brian Bromberg, 57, and his fiancÈ, Wendy Frank, were staying at their home in Upper Ojai on Wednesday despite the winds and several brushes of death they had the first week of the fire.

Bromberg defended their 20-acre (8-hectare) property with buckets of water for hours as flames burned their neighbor’s homes and embers began hitting theirs on Dec. 5. The couple could feel the heat from the flames as they fled the property with their four horses and later drove through a wall of fire as it jumped a major highway.

“We’re basically waiting and seeing,” Bromberg said of Wednesday’s forecast. “I can’t believe these winds keep coming back. We thought it was over.”

Around the property, even though the flames went through more than two weeks ago, Bromberg said the ground was still smoking and smoldering.

“It’s scary,” he said. “It’s like it never ends.”

Those who remain evacuated are watching the blaze from afar, hoping their homes survive another possible onslaught.

“My husband has the feeling, ‘Why aren’t they letting us back in?'” said 82-year-old Curry Sawyer, whose Christmas tree is up still waiting for her grandkids to decorate it after she and her husband Ray were forced from their Santa Barbara home two weeks ago.

“But they’ve got hot spots up there and if we get more Santa Ana winds, we’re going to be back to square one,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re out of the woods.”