Southern California wildfire roars to life in wilderness

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Southern California wildfire roars to life in wilderness. Natalie Brunell reports during Action News at 5:30 p.m. on November 13, 2018.

Southern California's huge wildfire roared to life again Tuesday in a mountain wilderness area, but in a sign of significant progress against the blaze, more neighborhoods were reopened to thousands of residents who fled last week.

A massive plume rose suddenly at midmorning in the Santa Monica Mountains near the community of Lake Sherwood, prompting authorities to send numerous aircraft to drop fire retardant and water on the blaze.

Forecasters had warned of ongoing fire danger due to persistent Santa Ana winds, the withering, dry gusts that sweep out of the interior toward the coast, pushing back moist ocean breezes.

But, except for an apartment building that burned overnight in coastal Malibu, there was little sign of fire activity elsewhere in the vast fire zone west of Los Angeles.

Officials tempered optimism with caution, saying there were hotspots and pockets of unburned vegetation.

"We are not out of the woods yet. We still have some incredibly tough conditions ahead of us," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.

The death toll from the Woolsey fire stood at two, a pair of adults found last week in a car overtaken by flames. They have not been identified.

The number of homes and other structures destroyed was 435. Damage assessment was continuing, with crews having to gain access to canyon areas on foot.

"That number is going to rise significantly," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

The fire has burned more than 80 percent of National Parks Service land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, officials said.

Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth lost their Malibu home in the wildfire and are donating $500,000 to The Malibu Foundation through Cyrus' charity, The Happy Hippie Foundation.

A statement from the couple says they "are very grateful to be safe along with their animals."

The fire has grown to 150 square miles (388 square kilometers) but containment also increased to 35 percent.

Authorities lifted evacuations Tuesday in parts or all of at least five communities and other areas have been repopulated since the weekend. About 100,000 people remained under evacuation orders, down from a high of as many as 250,000.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell urged patience by residents being turned back at roadblocks.

The area has not seen such a firestorm since the Old Topanga fire of 1993 and has left an array of hazards ranging from trees ready to fall to downed power lines, toxins, water main and gas leaks, and other destroyed infrastructure.

"We want to get you home but more important we want you to be safe," McDonnell said.'

Forecasts called for the Santa Ana winds to lighten Wednesday and Thursday.

"We're in what we hope will be the last day of a major wind event," the sheriff said.

A forecast of possible rain next week would help firefighters but also raised the prospect of potential mud flows, Osby said.

At least 42 people were confirmed dead in a wildfire that obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise , making it the deadliest wildfire in recorded state history. The search for bodies continued.

The cause of the Southern California fires remained under investigation.

Southern California Edison said last week that it reported to the California Public Utilities Commission "out of an abundance of caution" that there was an outage on an electrical circuit near where the fire started Thursday but there was no indication its equipment was involved in the fire reported two minutes after the outage.

Downed powerlines and blown transformers have been blamed for several of the deadly fires that have burned in recent years.

California regulators said initial testing found no elevated levels of radiation or hazardous compounds after the fire burned near a former nuclear test site in hills northwest of Los Angeles.

The organization Physicians for Social Responsibility said in a statement Monday that it was likely that smoke and ash from the fire spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in soil and vegetation.

The site was used for decades for testing rocket engines and nuclear energy research. One of its nuclear reactors had a partial meltdown in 1959 and battles over decontamination efforts have gone on for years, with neighbors blaming illnesses on the site.

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Myers reported from Thousand Oaks. Associated Press writers John Antczak and Christopher Weber contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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(Copyright ©2018 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)