By Alex Dobuzinskis and Zelie Pollon
LOS ANGELES/SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - A wildfire burning in mountains north of Los Angeles has destroyed 24 homes including a number of summer cabins, fire officials said on Thursday after it was safe enough to send in an on-foot assessment team.
The damage wrought by the Powerhouse Fire comes as officials in California have warned of a particularly early and intense start of the fire season. Two major wildfires are also burning in New Mexico, including one that was threatening Native American sites.
A previous estimate had put the number of residences damaged or destroyed by the Powerhouse Fire at 15. The blaze, which has consumed just over 30,000 acres, has also destroyed another 29 outbuildings.
Firefighters have gained the upper hand on the blaze, which began a week ago in northwest Los Angeles County and has burned through brush lands in mountainous terrain near the towns of Lancaster and Palmdale. The blaze was 78 percent contained, with full containment predicted for Monday.
"Definitely we've turned the corner, there's no question about that," U.S. Forest Service safety officer Ron Ashdale said.
But the weather in the coming days is expected to get warmer, which could complicate firefighting efforts.
The forecasted high temperature for Thursday was 97 degrees Fahrenheit (36 Celsius), and winds could shift on Friday and Saturday and threaten to spread flames toward a containment line that is nevertheless expected to hold, Ashdale said.
Some of the 24 homes destroyed in the Powerhouse Fire are believed to be primary residences, especially around the Lake Hughes area that was touched by flames, but others are summer cabins in the Angeles National Forest, fire officials said.
The cause of the blaze, which broke out near a remote powerhouse and has cost $16 million to fight, is still under investigation.
In New Mexico, where two major wildfires were burning largely unchecked, firefighters took advantage of a drop in temperatures and a rise in humidity to gain ground against the blazes, one of which was threatening holy and historic sites.
The Thompson Ridge Fire west of Santa Fe stood at 12,171 acres on Thursday and was only 5 percent contained after firefighters worked to protect historic ranch buildings and Redondo Peak which is sacred to Native Americans.
The blaze in the Valles Caldera National Preserve threatened a number of sites with artifacts of human settlements, such as obsidian tools, said Ana Steffen, cultural resources coordinator for the preserve. Some remains in the preserve are over 10,000 years old, she said.
Firefighters considered the coming few days a chance to create containment lines before a new wave of heat and low humidity was predicted for early next week.
"The next couple of days will be good because early next week we're going to be tested. So if we can get this done, we have a much better chance of holding this," said Peter D'Aquanni, a spokesman for the team handling the blaze.
New Mexico's second major blaze, the Tres Lagunas Blaze east of Santa Fe, stood at 9,578 acres and was 24 percent contained, officials said.
Authorities ordered the evacuation of 144 homes at the fire's start, but they allowed residents of about a dozen homes to return on Wednesday.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard Orr)