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4 major Southern California fires burn nearly 5,000 acres

Relatively calm winds aid firefighters, but triple-digit temperatures make fire-control efforts extremely difficult in steep, open canyon areas, notably the La Canada Flintridge foothills.

August 29, 2009|Alexandra Zavis, Ann M. Simmons and Rich Connell

Scorching temperatures continued to stoke wildfires across Southern California on Friday, creating anxious moments in the mountains north and east of Los Angeles, where thousands of residents fled flames that skipped through canyons, edging toward one neighborhood after another.

More than 2,700 firefighters and a small air force of air tankers and helicopters managed to stop the blazes before they swept into hillside housing tracts. But smoky air from the fires continued to create unhealthful conditions in parts of the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys.

And the situation remained precarious late Friday in several areas, notably the slopes above La Canada Flintridge where more than 5,100 acres had burned. By late Friday evening, mandatory evacutations had been ordered in areas near La Canada Flintridge Golf Course, affecting more than 50 homes.

"It's going to be extremely dynamic," said David Conklin, fire management officer for Angeles National Forest. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

Dubbed the Station fire, it was the most dangerous of four blazes still burning Friday from the San Bernardino National Forest to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Relatively calm winds greatly aided firefighters, but triple-digit temperatures were expected to last through Sunday, making fire-control efforts extremely difficult in steep, open canyon areas.

The Station fire jumped fire lines and Angeles Crest Highway on Friday morning. There were voluntary evacuations in three areas and nearly 900 families decided to leave.

Down-canyon winds overnight Thursday pushed the fire toward La Canada Flintridge. But daytime winds shifted up the canyons, spreading the fire out toward the east and west.

By Friday evening, the flames were moving southeast along the Arroyo Seco above Altadena, as well as northwest toward Tujunga.

"We want to keep it from getting established on the slopes above Altadena and below Mt. Wilson. There are a lot of National Forest campgrounds in there," said Stanton Florea, a fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service .

He said fire personnel were fanning out in the area ahead of the fire to warn campers and hikers to leave the area. The fire was threatening the Switzer's picnic area and the Milard and Gould Mesa campgrounds, among other areas.

The fire is spreading in rocky and steep terrain and areas where extremely thick vegetation has not been thinned by fire in the last 40 years. Firefighters cannot get bulldozers in most areas and have to dig fire lines by hand. The Station fire was 5% contained.

After a restless night Thursday, monitoring flames leaping 50 to 100 feet above tinder brush, nervous residents gathered belongings Friday and prepared for the worst.

"It was like a real inferno -- the whole mountain was just ablaze," said Anjum Khan, 50, who packed her suitcases Friday but was clinging to the hope her Forest Green Drive home of 11 years would be spared.

Standing with Khan near the La Canada Country Club as helicopters scooped water from a golf course pond was Nabila Idroos, who had packed her car with valuables -- passports, jewelry, insurance documents, laptop computers and the Koran. She and her husband, a doctor, raised their children in the neighborhood, which was under voluntary evacuation orders.

"How much can you take when you live in a home for 20 years?" asked Idroos, 60. "Hopefully no structures get destroyed. That's all I'm praying for. Things can get replaced, but not lives."

In all, nearly 10,000 acres had burned in the four major fires by Friday evening. In addition to those wildfires, two separate blazes scorched roughly 1,000 acres in sprawling Camp Pendelton in San Diego County. Neither fire threatened structures.

An air assault through the night helped bring the Palos Verdes Peninsula fire under 90% containment Friday. Expensive homes in Rolling Hills and Rancho Palos Verdes had been threatened, with flames lapping at the eaves of some residences. The blaze consumed 230 acres.

But using infrared equipment and taking advantage of tranquil winds on the ocean-facing slopes, five helicopters were able to fly into the hills dropping water until the early morning hours.

When daybreak came, just three homes had sustained minor damage and firefighters had gained the upper hand. By Friday afternoon, a mandatory evacuation order was lifted in the area near Portuguese Bend.

"We're very grateful for the heroic efforts of the firefighters," said Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor Larry Clark.

In steep terrain above Hemet, a San Bernardino National Forest wildfire was just 10% contained, but was not posing an immediate threat to structures although 2,200 acres had burned. A mandatory evacuation order in the Willowbrook Road area was lifted, but voluntary evacuation advisories remained for Bee Canyon.

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