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Thousands who fled fires may be able to return, official says

  • Story Highlights
  • Fires burn 26,800 acres, destroy 64 structures, governor says
  • Two deaths are connected to fires in Los Angeles, Ventura counties, officials say
  • Winds could push fires to pricey neighborhoods near coast, officials say

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Officials are close to lifting the evacuation orders for thousands of people that fled raging wildfires that have torched more than 20,000 acres of Southern California terrain, Los Angeles mayor said Tuesday.

"It is imminent. We can't give you an hour now, but we are close to lifting the order," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at Tuesday evening news conference.

• Two major fires -- the Marek and Sesnon blazes -- have burned more than 18,000 acres in the hills and mountains north of Los Angeles.

• At Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside, a fire has burned more than 3,000 acres and forced the evacuation of Marines from their barracks and other personnel from the base.

• A fast-moving fire east of San Diego that started early Tuesday led to the evacuation of 300 homes in the Campo area, near the Mexican border.

The fires are being pushed by Santa Ana winds gusting up to 70 mph (113 kph), but firefighters may have caught a break Tuesday morning when the winds calmed. Video Watch as winds push flames along hillsides »

"We're facing the perfect storm," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday morning. "We have very strong winds, low humidity and the heat." Ponies flee wind-fueled flames

Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and local officials have urged President Bush to issue a federal disaster declaration.

Statewide, Schwarzenegger said, the fires have burned 26,800 acres and destroyed 64 structures. About 3,100 personnel, including National Guard members, are using 321 fire engines and 22 helicopters to fight the blazes.

Noting California's budget crisis, the governor said public safety is a top priority.

"We will not spare one single dollar in fighting the fires," he said. "We will take it from somewhere else if we have to."

Nearly 1,350 firefighters are battling the Marek blaze, and more than 1,400 are working the Sesnon fire. The crews aim to prevent the blazes from pushing closer to pricey neighborhoods on the Pacific Coast. Watch iReporter's account from inside the fires Video

The Sesnon fire, in the Porter Ranch area at the western end of the San Fernando Valley, had burned nearly 13,285 acres along a southwestern swath. Firefighters were unable to contain the blaze by Tuesday evening. Video Watch flames leap above California hills »

Villaraigosa said the Sesnon fire had burned 19 structures, although he said it was not clear how many of them were houses.

The Marek fire, burning at the northeastern end of the valley, had charred nearly 5,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, officials said.

That fire destroyed 39 homes, including about 30 mobile homes, and five outbuildings in the Lopez Canyon area, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Sam Padilla said. The mobile homes had been evacuated Sunday.

About 1,800 residents were evacuated because of the Marek fire, which is about 80 percent contained, Schwarzenegger said. View your wildfire stories on a map

Los Angeles Fire Chief Douglas Barry said that investigators have not yet determined a cause for the Marek and Sesnon blazes.

The fire at Camp Pendleton started in the Juliet Training Area and is about 25 percent contained, base spokesman Bill Gick said. About 350 firefighters are battling the blaze.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, but no live fire or incendiary training was being conducted in the area, officials said. See how fires can grow, and how to fight them »

North of Los Angeles, bulldozers worked overnight to cut fire lines through the dry wildlands ahead of the flames, while fire engines and their crews waited on the fires' edges to protect homes, Los Angeles Assistant Fire Chief Greg West said.

CNN iReports filed by Los Angeles residents reveal the intensity of the fires.

An iReport video by Paul Avila shows at least seven police and fire vehicles racing by with their sirens blaring. Not far off, a thick cloud of smoke darkens the sky. A sort while later, a helicopter flies by on its way to one of the fires.

"It's all radical around here," Avila says in his iReport.

The deaths of at least two people have been linked to the fires.


A man who appeared to be homeless died in a makeshift wood-and-cardboard shelter. The other victim was killed in a collision of vehicles trying to exit a freeway that had to be closed because of one of the wildfires, a fire official said.

No identity or age was available for either victim.

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