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Red Alert : Firefighters Battle Elements, Arsonists in Fire Season

August 28, 1986|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

It is fire season again in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The August sun has shriveled the brush, baked the ground and sent most mammals scurrying for shelter.

At times, firefighters and arsonists appear to be the only ones who don't shy away from the dry hills at this time of year. The former have been busy fighting a string of small fires that have plagued La Canada Flintridge, Glendale, Pasadena, Altadena, Monrovia and Angeles National Forest in the past 10 days. The latter have been busy setting most of them, according to the U. S. Forest Service.

"We've got an arsonist working the front canyons. We've had a fire almost every day this week," Rich Hawkins, Forest Service fire management officer, said Tuesday. Hawkins coordinates manpower and equipment to fight fires in the Arroyo Seco Ranger District of Angeles National Forest. He is responsible for 50 firefighters, including 32 seasonal workers who are hired each summer to augment the force, and 112,000 acres that stretch from La Crescenta on the west to Duarte on the east and up north to near Wrightwood.

Firefighters just about crackle with nervous energy during fire season, which begins in May and swings into high gear from now until November, when the Santa Ana winds traditionally begin.

Firefighters say it is a time of danger and adventure when their skills are pitted against the fire.

"We may have to leave any time now" to go fight a fire, Hawkins told a visitor one day last week.

Meanwhile, the day was hot and calm as Hawkins visited several ranger stations to take inventory of available firefighters and equipment. By early afternoon, he was at Clear Creek Ranger Station, about 10 miles north of La Canada Flintridge on Angeles Crest Highway, where firefighters were doing routine maintenance and putting away hoses. The previous day, they had fought fires in Big Tujunga Canyon and the hills above Altadena.

The Arroyo Seco District has six fire stations and an equal number of trucks. When more firefighting muscle is needed, Hawkins can call on other Forest Service districts, the county or city fire departments in Los Angeles or those maintained by municipalities like Glendale or Pasadena.

The Arroyo Seco District also loans its men and equipment. On Tuesday, one district engine, five firefighters and a water-dropping helicopter were en route home from Oregon, where they had helped put out a series of massive fires started by lightning. Two other engines and 10 firefighters were expected back from San Bernardino.

"It's not the best day for a fire to start," Hawkins said. The day ended without incident.

U. S. Forest Service officials say most of their fires are started by people, not nature. Last week, for example, someone lit a stolen vehicle on fire and pushed it over a precipice on Angeles Crest Highway, igniting a brush fire that blackened a quarter-acre and charred three structures, said Chuck Shamblin, a Forest Service district investigator.

Arson is suspected in a late July forest fire that burned 135 acres in Angeles Forest near Mt. Wilson and forced the evacuation of 65 people. David McCarthy, 32, who was living at a nearby campsite when the fire started, is scheduled to go on trial Wednesday in connection with that fire.

Shamblin declined to say why investigators have linked McCarthy to the fire, but said he has evidence that the fire did not start accidentally or from natural causes.

Arson investigators like Shamblin do not help put out fires. But they are usually at the scene, observing spectators and looking for possible arsonists who may have returned to watch the flames.

"I look for people I've seen at other fires. If they've been at two or three other incidents, I'd better talk to them," he said.

Firefighters in Angeles Forest no longer scan the horizon from remote lookout towers for that telltale plume of smoke. Smog now obscures the horizon on many days, and there are more people in and near the forest to watch for fires. Vetter Mountain Lookout, the last of 30 in the forest, closed a few years ago.

When a fire breaks out, it usually is spotted quickly by Forest Service personnel who cruise the dirt roads and highways, homeowners in nearby hills, campers or commercial aircraft, Hawkins said.

To do battle with most fires, the Forest Service sends an initial group of five engines, a tank truck filled with water, a "hot-shot" crew of 20 firefighters armed with chain saws and shovels, a bulldozer, a helicopter that carries 340 gallons of water and a fire commander, Shamblin said.

Fire hoses can be connected to stretch more than a mile. But when fires break out in remote areas, firefighters take electric pumps and maps that show indigenous water supplies such as springs or streams.

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