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2 Firefighters Die, 4 Hurt Battling Blaze

August 21, 1993|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two firefighters were killed and two others were severely burned after a brush fire broke out Friday in a rugged hillside section of Altadena, destroying more than 100 acres, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said.

The fire, one of three that erupted in dry, brushy parts of the county, threatened homes only briefly before winds drove it into the Angeles National Forest, said county Fire Inspector Jack Pritchard. Two men from a civilian fire crew dropped by helicopter were killed when the blaze jumped to a spot near them, then trapped them as it burned rapidly uphill, fire officials said.

"They got between the fire and a spot fire," Pritchard said, calling the incident unusual in a region plagued by seasonal brush fires. "It's probably at least 10 years or more since any county firefighters have been killed during a brush fire. (But) I wouldn't say it's a fluke thing. It's one of those things that happen at brush fires all over the country."

The names of the two firefighters killed were not released. They were described as members of an eight-man camp crew, a team of mostly young, entry-level firefighters who were creating a line around portions of the fire. They worked in conjunction with water-dropping helicopters, Pritchard said.

Two other members of the same camp crew were overtaken by flames and listed in critical condition at Sherman Oaks Hospital Burn Center, Pritchard said.

The two injured firefighters were identified as Hector Larrios, 19, and Christopher Barth, 25, who suffered extensive third-degree burns and smoke inhalation, said county Fire Inspector Mark Savage. Two other firefighters were being treated for injuries, including one suffering from heat exhaustion.

At a news conference at the hospital, assistant county Fire Chief William Zeason promised a full investigation of how the deaths occurred.

"The fire made a run at them," Zeason said. "We know that a fire will travel 16 times faster uphill than downhill--it travels very quickly. It preheats the fuel (ahead of it)."

The last county firefighters to die in the line of duty were Jeff Langley, who fell from a helicopter during a rescue this year in Topanga State Park, and Jim Howell, who was killed in a house fire in Huntington Park in 1991.

The Altadena blaze, which broke out at 3 p.m., may have been ignited by a car fire, but authorities were still investigating its cause, Pritchard said. By late evening, about 100 firefighters had managed to fully contain the brush fire, he added.

Two other brush fires destroyed at least 100 acres apiece in Claremont and on Santa Catalina Island, fire officials said.

The fire in Claremont was considered a possible case of arson because it broke out in brushy area a good distance from a road or other likely source of accidental ignition, fire officials said.

The blaze was reported at 2:30 p.m. in a brushy section of Palmer Canyon. About 50 homes were threatened along Via Padova, resulting in the evacuation of about 80 residents, said county Fire Inspector Devin Trone.

However, the fire damaged only one small abandoned home and was considered nearly contained late Friday, Trone said.

Firefighter were optimistic that the blaze would be well under control by this morning, but cautioned that morning breezes could fan the flames.

On Santa Catalina Island, a fire that erupted at 11:30 a.m. destroyed about 150 acres, but no injuries or damage were reported in the remote, grassy area, Pritchard said.

Times correspondent Andrew Le Page contributed to this report.

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