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Local firefighters head south to battle blaze

Three dozen local firefighters have been dispatched to Southern California, to battle wind-driven fires stretching from Los Angeles to San Diego which are likely to hang tough for days.

Two strike teams, each composed of 17 firefighters, left the Merced area about 3 p.m. Sunday enroute to the Malibu Canyon area. More than a half-dozen fires fanned by Santa Ana winds have killed one person near San Diego, hurt eight others and destroyed homes and a church in the exclusive Malibu area.

Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten said two strike teams from Merced will be deployed wherever they are needed most. One of the strike teams has a state Office of Emergency Services rig from Atwater, along with another one from Madera and three from the Fresno area.

The other strike team has an OES engine from the city of Merced, one from Los Banos, one from Merced County and two from Mariposa County. Merced Fire Department Division Chief Mike McLaughlin is one of the strike team leaders.

Mitten has no idea when local firefighters will be back. Hot weather and strong winds have marked the height of the traditional wildfire season. It's likely local firefighters will be assigned to protect homes threatened by the fast-moving blazes.

Mitten said his department probably will be sending two additional engines down south today. The state OES lets local fire departments keep extra firetrucks for normal everyday use but these trucks and firefighters often are sent to larger California wildfires.

Local firefighters assemble in staging areas and then are sent where the needs are greatest.

Atwater Fire Chief Ed Banks said a three-person truck from Atwater is part of the firefighting contingent. Banks said it is most likely local firefighters will be assigned to protect local homes. In past fires, however, Atwater firefighters were assigned to wildland fire suppression duties.

No details were immediately available about the death in San Diego County, but four firefighters and four other people were injured and taken to hospitals, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.

The fire was among at least eight blazes stretching from north of Los Angeles to San Diego.

The fire responsible for the death and eight injuries burned about 2,500 acres near a highway. A second charred about 3,000 acres in northern San Diego County and was threatening homes near Witch Creek, Provaznik said.

Meanwhile, in Malibu, about 500 firefighters worked to protect about 200 homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills, officials said.

The blaze, which started in Malibu Canyon, had charred at least 1,000 acres and destroyed a church and several homes, one of them a landmark castle. No residents or firefighters were injured, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said.

The winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping center where a supermarket, drug store and other shops were damaged.

TV footage showed several buildings in flames in the area, including clusters of beach-side homes.

"This fire is zero percent contained, which means we're at the mercy of the wind," acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.

In all, three homes and two commercial buildings had been confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said.