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New fire threatens SoCal neighborhood

RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, Calif., May 13 (UPI) -- A brush fire that erupted near an Orange County suburb Monday afternoon threatened several upscale homes, but firefighters were able to fend off the flames with no reported damage.

The 600-acre fire the swept through dry brush in Rancho Santa Margarita was considered a threat to as many as 200 houses; many of which appeared to be in the multi-million dollar price range.

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Quick action by scores of firefighters from around Orange and Los Angeles Counties as well as some fire breaks cleared by residents kept homes from burning and allowed crews to have the blaze 80-percent contained by sundown.

"They have already started to gear down and release some of the firefighters," a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority told United Press International.

Firefighters also gained the upper hand on a stubborn three-day 4,500-acre wildfire burning in the dry hills north of Los Angeles.

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The Bouquet Fire in the Angeles National Forest was 70-percent contained Monday evening after giving a force of more than 1,000 firefighters a run for their money over the weekend.

The fire broke out Saturday in the Bouquet Canyon area of the forest around 50 miles north of Los Angeles. Fueled by heavy brush dried out during an abnormally dry winter in Southern California, the fire spread quickly with the unwelcome assistance of gusty winds and hot, arid weather conditions over the weekend.

While the Bouquet Fire was not considered a serious threat to property, it was seen as an early test of the firefighters who will have to contend with one of the most dangerous fire seasons in recent years.

The dry winter prevented vegetation from taking up much moisture, leaving it in the same potentially explosive conditions usually found during the middle of summer.

"We usually don't have these dry conditions until August," Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Greg Cleveland told the Los Angeles Times.

With more than 1,000 firefighters and a dozen aircraft brought in to fight the Bouquet Fire, however, commanders had the luxury of not having any other major fires to contend with at the same time. The situation likely will change as summer sets in and the potential for multiple fires in the Southwest increases.

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The U.S. Forest Service has determined fire conditions to be very high to extreme in much of Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico as well as in southern Nevada and parts of Colorado.

Officials in the region have been urging residents in "urban interface" areas along the boundaries of brush-and-forest lands to make sure that they have cleared a firebreak around their property before trouble starts.

The drought is considered so severe in New Mexico that officials are concerned not only with the potential for fire to occur, but the possibility that there might not be enough water to stop flames from approaching residential areas.

"The availability of sufficient water to fight wildfires is critical and the lack of water makes us extremely vulnerable," State Forester Toby Martinez said recently. "New Mexico has recognized for some time now the need to be proactive in reducing the vulnerability of our urban interface communities ... to the devastation caused by wildfires."

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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