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Crews, Weather Assist In Fighting Calif. Fires

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And here in southern California, firefighters are finally beginning to gain control of the giant wildfire burning north of Los Angeles. It is still growing in size, but it's not nearly as fast as it was just a couple of days ago. And last night, as the danger passed in some neighborhoods, scores of evacuees went back home.

Joining us now, as she has all week, is NPR's Mandalit del Barco. She's been following these fires all over California, but this one in particular. Good morning.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Good morning again, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Mandalit, finally some good news to report about the fire. It had to do with the fact that last night was not nearly as hot.

DEL BARCO: That's right. And, you know, in firefighting the weather is crucial. Last night the temperatures dropped and the humidity increased just a bit, and that brought some moisture to the area that was, as they say, bone dry. Also the wind - there hasn't been much of it driving the flames.

The annual Santa Ana winds haven't really kicked in yet, and that's given firefighters a chance to move into the threatened areas to set back fires. That's to cut off the fuel and stop the wildfire from spreading so rapidly.

Yeah, yesterday, they sent out an incredibly large Boeing 747 filled with water and retardant. The supertanker can dump up to 20,000 gallons in a single load to help dowse the flames. But the weather is unpredictable, and you know, they say the fire could easily burn for at least another week or maybe two weeks.

MONTAGNE: Right. But the thousands of people who've been fleeing the fire over the weekend - I mean, there's still plenty of people out of their homes but some are back. Are the evacuations themselves over now?

DEL BARCO: Well, in some places, there are still people being evacuated, but -and then there are some people who are defying the orders to evacuate and they're still hoping to ride out the firestorm. But things are definitely better in some communities on the edge of the Angeles National Forest, like La Crescenta and La Canada.

Here's Carl Mersoyen(ph). He's 16 and he's been sweating it out with his family at one of the shelters.

Mr. CARL MERSOYEN: They already told us, like, you can go home already, but we're going to stay out a little bit longer until the smoke kind of goes away, and then we'll go back.

DEL BARCO: The fire's still very active in some areas with flames up to 80 feet tall and the air quality is so bad that it's spreading across the West. The strip in Las Vegas is reportedly covered with smoke from California. And I understand there's smoke and ashes from this fire even as far as Denver, Colorado.

MONTAGNE: And, Mandalit, it wasn't just people fleeing the fire - tigers, chimps, reptiles, birds that lived in a wildlife refuge - were also evacuated.

DEL BARCO: That's right. I spoke to workers at the Wildlife Way Station as they were loading hundreds of exotic animals onto flatbeds and trailers. Animals were given temporary shelter at the L.A. Zoo and other compounds. But at the zoo, two chimps escaped and made their way into the small primates exhibit and into Griffith Park. They had to be wrangled back and they must have been pretty spooked by all the commotion.

But in another location - the Shambala Preserve - dozens of lions and big cats, including Michael Jackson's cats, are still in place.

MONTAGNE: And we've been talking this week about the TV and radio transmitter complex and the observatory on top of Mount Wilson. And I see that something like 150 firefighters are now on the mountain ready to fight the fire if it gets right to the top.

DEL BARCO: That's right. Firefighters say they're fairly optimistic that Mount Wilson will be spared. Yesterday, they set control burns and they hit the area hard with water-dropping airplanes, including an air tanker built for the Navy in World War II.

MONTAGNE: Mandalit, thanks very much.

DEL BARCO: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mandalit del Barco reporting on the progress firefighters are making - for the moment at least - in the battle against the huge wildfire north of Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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