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Blazes Disrupt Road, Rail Traffic

Fires: Flames stall I-15 traffic in Norco and trains in Canyon Country. A woman thanks deputies who saved her from killing herself as fire advanced.

September 05, 2002|JESSICA GARRISON and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

New fires in Norco and Soledad Canyon disrupted traffic on a busy freeway and an important rail line Wednesday as firefighters continued to battle two much larger blazes in the mountainous backcountry north of Los Angeles, including the 16,000-acre Curve fire north of Azusa.

A woman who was rescued from the Curve fire Sunday by two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies said she will be forever grateful to them.

"They are just like angels," said Sigrid Hopson, who was about to shoot herself when the officers burst through the smoke. "They have so much to live for yet, and I just don't think it would have been right if they died for me."

Hopson, 60, said she has taken solace in the San Gabriel Mountains, living year-round in a cabin at Soldier's Creek since her son was killed in a car crash 15 years ago.

As the fire raced toward her refuge on Sunday, she was prepared to commit suicide.

She released two of her dogs and shot her crippled dog, Donnie, because she didn't think he could survive. She was sitting on the floor of her cabin wearing her sister's jewelry and with the gun in her lap when Deputies John Rose and Paul Archambault arrived.

The two men had come for her after she called her ex-husband and told him she planned to commit suicide to avoid burning to death.

"It's just a miracle," she said of their daring getaway. "There was just a solid wall of fire ... then the wind blew from behind them and made a tunnel of fire, and they just stepped on the gas and drove through this tunnel."

The deputies spirited Hopson to safety, and she is now staying at an Azusa motel, waiting until she can return to her home, which she said was not destroyed.

"I protected this forest for so many years," she said. "So maybe God is paying me back and let my cabin stand."

The Curve fire broke out Sunday afternoon beside California 39 near Rincon. Officials said fire investigators had concluded that "candles associated with a ritual involving the use of fire and animal sacrifices started the fire."

The blaze was about 15% contained by Wednesday night, with full containment not expected for about a week.

It was burning beneath major transmission lines delivering electricity to Southern California from the north.

The California Independent System Operator, which matches supply to demand in much of the state, reduced the power flow on the lines as a precaution, so that a sudden loss from a line failure would not disrupt the entire system.

Officials said that no blackouts were anticipated, but that the reduced flow could jeopardize the ability to respond to an unexpected surge in electricity demand.

On Wednesday, the Norco fire broke out beneath the Interstate 15 bridges over the brush-choked Santa Ana River bed. The flames, which were knocked down after charring about four acres, halted freeway traffic in both directions for more than an hour.

The California Highway Patrol said several motorists attempting to double back to nearby exits triggered minor traffic accidents, turning what at best is a slow drive home into a traffic jam for thousands of evening commuters.

A 60-acre blaze straddled the railroad tracks about three miles east of Canyon Country Wednesday afternoon, briefly blocking Metrolink commuter and Union Pacific freight traffic on the main rail line between Los Angeles and Palmdale. No structures were endangered and no evacuations were ordered.

The fire was contained Wednesday night.

Officials said the big fires in the hills near the Leona Valley and north of Azusa were have blackened more than 20,000 acres, destroying at least 78 buildings and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents and campers.

The fires were burning in brush and timberland parched by one of the driest years on record, but forecasters said clouds spun off by a rapidly deteriorating tropical storm off the coast of Baja California will bring a 50% chance of rain by this afternoon.

The Leona Valley fire, which destroyed four homes and two outbuildings on Bouquet Canyon Road on Tuesday afternoon, was 40% contained Wednesday night after burning about 4,500 acres.

Los Angeles County fire officials said that although diminishing winds had slowed the spread of the blaze toward Palmdale, several residential areas, including Ritter Ranch, Rancho Vista, Ana Verde, Desert View Highlands and Lost Valley, were still in danger.

That fire started Tuesday afternoon beside Bouquet Canyon Road, spreading rapidly through heavy brush and quickly enveloping several homes in the heart of the Leona Valley.

At least 250 residents fled the advancing flames, but many of them had returned by Wednesday afternoon.

*

Times staff writers Nancy Vogel, Carol Chambers, Richard Fausset, Scott Gold and Wendy Thermos contributed to this report.

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