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Firefighters gaining ground

Wildfire scorches 24,000 acres, several homes

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Los Angeles (California)

SIMI VALLEY, California (CNN) -- Firefighters in Simi Valley made slow headway Friday as they began to gain control of a raging wildfire northwest of Los Angeles that has scorched nearly 24,000 acres. By late Friday, the blaze was 40 percent contained.

So far, the efforts have largely paid off. Six structures, including three single-family homes, have been damaged or destroyed by the fire and some 2,000 others have been saved, fire officials said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Zaroslavsky told CNN's "The Situation Room" that in addition to the heroic efforts of the firefighters, citizens have played an important role in preserving their homes by clearing the brush, as required by the county.

"You saw (Thursday) night on CNN homes that were within dozens of feet of the flames and the flames just came to a stop as though there was some supernatural force," Zaroslavsky said. "The reason for it is there was nothing left to burn between the clearance area and the house and the house was saved." (See video on why fires hit each year -- 2:05)

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger flew over the affected area Friday, after getting briefed on the latest information on the fires.

Later at a press conference, he said he was impressed with the work so far, and thanked authorities and firefighters for their hard work, saying: "They are doing such a heroic job working day and night to put this fire out, and they have it almost under control."

Schwarzenegger said some firefighters and first responders now fighting the fire recently returned from the Gulf Coast region where they helped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Low temperatures and calmer winds have helped firefighters establish direct lines around the blaze, which started Wednesday afternoon near Chatsworth and was quickly spread by the dry Santa Ana winds from the northwest.

The cause is under investigation.

Some 3,000 firefighters from Ventura County, Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City, the California Department of Forestry and the National Park Service are battling the "Chatsworth/Topanga" fire, an effort totaling over $2.8 million.

A few miles to the east, a smaller fire in Burbank continued to spread Friday, burning some 700 acres as 350 firefighters fought the blaze. So far, no homes are in jeopardy as the fire moves up a mountain north of Los Angeles.

Many of the firefighters battling the Chatsworth/Topanga fire were working on constructing a 15-mile fire line to battle the blaze.

The annual Santa Ana winds died down Thursday, but dry conditions continued to fuel the fire. Onshore flow -- moist winds off the Pacific Ocean -- could help contain the fire Friday.

Mandatory evacuations were issued hours after the blaze began Wednesday, and the evacuations spread as the Chatsworth/Topanga fire expanded. About 1,500 people were evacuated from the surrounding areas, according to a statement posted on Ventura County's Web site.

By Friday, some of the evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations are still in effect Friday in several areas threatened or affected by the fire.

Over 100 people slept in Red Cross shelters Friday night in Los Angeles County and Ventura County, and at least one Ventura County school district closed Friday.

Officials are still concerned that the fire could jump U.S. 101, endangering Malibu on the coast and other areas where thousands of upscale properties are located.

"We wanted to set up contingency plan for Highway 101 because we did not want this fire to jump that freeway and continue on to what we call the 'Great Fire Break' which is the Pacific Ocean because it has done that before," Kevin Nestor, a battalion chief for the Ventura County Fire Department, said Friday.

Los Angeles County and Ventura County have each declared a state of local disaster to formalize aid with other agencies and to help recoup the costs of fighting the massive fire.

The fire more than tripled in size from Thursday's 7,000 acres to Friday night's 23,970.

The owner of one destroyed home described his situation as "horrible."

"I'm homeless," David Nenkervis told CNN affiliate KABC after inspecting his property. "God, I can't believe it. Sixty-four years old, and I don't have a home."

CNN's Dan Simon contributed to this report

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