Evacuation orders lifted as crews make headway on Southern California wildfires

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Firefighters face strong winds as they head up a hillside to battle a wind driven wildfire near Irvine, California

(Reuters) - Two California wildfires, which forced 130,000 Orange County residents from their homes earlier this week, were largely contained on Thursday, though smoke still fouled the air in the surrounding communities, officials said.

The last of several mandatory evacuation orders were lifted on Thursday, though voluntary evacuations were still recommended in some areas, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said at a briefing.

In Lake Forest, where the last of 11,000 evacuees were allowed back into their homes on Thursday, smoke continued to linger, city management services Director Brett Channing said.

"It looks like there's some smoldering in the hills, but no flames," Channing said by phone.

The neighboring city of Irvine, where evacuation orders were lifted on Wednesday, declared its air quality unhealthy downwind from the Silverado fire in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains south of Los Angeles.

The Silverado fire, along with the Blue Ridge fire that had prompted evacuation orders in nearby Yorba Linda, were the latest eruptions in a record fire season for the state.

Wildfires have scorched more than 6,400 square miles (16,500 square km) of California real estate - equivalent to the land mass of the state of Hawaii - since the start of the year.

The death toll grew to 32 with the announcement on Wednesday by the Butte County Sheriff's Office that a 54-year-old man died on Oct. 21 six weeks after suffering burns in the North Complex fire in the Plumas National Forest north of Sacramento.

More than 1,200 firefighters took advantage of diminished winds to widen their containment of the Silverado fire overnight to 40% from 25%, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said. The fire's charred area was little changed at 13,390 acres (5,419 hectares), it said.

No structures were damaged by the Silverado fire, but two firefighters suffered second- and third-degree burns on Monday. They remained in critical condition on Thursday, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said.

"They’re still in a serious fight for their lives," Fennessy told a briefing.

Southern California Edison <SCE_pe.A> said earlier this week that its equipment may started the blaze, although officials are still investigating the matter.

At the Blue Ridge fire near Yorba Linda, 1,051 firefighters nearly doubled their containment lines overnight to 30% of the blaze, which remained at 14,334 acres (5,801 hectares), Cal Fire said.

Across the state, more than 5,600 crew members were battling 22 wildfires on Thursday, and had quickly contained 29 new ones that sprang up on Wednesday, it said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)