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10,000 homes are threatened

August 30, 2009|Louis Sahagun, Ann M. Simmons and Esmeralda Bermudez

The unstoppable Angeles National Forest fire threatened 10,000 homes Saturday night as it more than tripled in size and chewed through a rapidly widening swath of the Crescenta Valley, where flames closed in on backyards and at least 1,000 homes were ordered evacuated.

Sending an ominous plume of smoke above the Los Angeles Basin, the fire was fueled by unrelenting hot weather and dense brush that has not burned in 60 years.

It took off Saturday afternoon in all directions, forcing residents out of homes from Big Tujunga Canyon to Pasadena, and reached toward Mt. Wilson.

Heavy smoke clung to the mountains and created a hot and massive convection column that limited the evening aerial fire fight.

Officials predicted that the blaze would continue its march toward homes and across hills through the night with flames that could reach as high as 80 feet.

Late Saturday, U.S. Forest Service officials said they were moving "several hundred firefighters" into the Acton area, where they expected the fire to reach this morning.

Forest Service officials said three civilians were burned and airlifted from rural Big Tujunga Canyon, where at least three to five homes were destroyed. One fire official, after surveying the canyon, estimated that the damage toll may be much worse.

No other homes had been lost by early evening as throngs of residents -- belongings loaded in cars -- descended from the hills.

"I wish I had good news for you," Les Curtis, a fire operations chief, said during a night briefing for firefighters. He shook his head and pointed to the map of the expanding fire zone. "How many of you have knots in your stomach?" he asked. More than a dozen raised their hands.

"Nothing can stop it," said Jost Vielmetter, 62, a Caltech scientist who watched the flames from the northern edge of Altadena.

By late Saturday afternoon, the fire had consumed more than 21,000 acres, propelled by temperatures that eclipsed 100 degrees, single-digit humidity and steep, rugged topography that made for a formidable foe despite low winds.

Firefighters can only expect a slight reprieve on the heat today as red-flag warnings extend until tonight. But more significant cooling and even a moist marine layer are expected Monday morning.

Fire officials estimate that about 10,000 homes are in danger if the fire continues burning unchecked.

At sundown, as scattered power outages hit the area, flames encircled the ridges near Briggs Terrace on the northeastern edge of La Crescenta. By 7:30 p.m., the northern end of Pickens Canyon, close to the neighborhood, exploded in flames.

"Oh, my God. This is what I've been dreading all day," said David Ferrera, 35, who grew up in the area.

It was the first time that he and his neighbors were seized with worry. At that point, clouds of glowing embers began floating up from the fire. Suddenly, so-called hotshots -- firefighters with shovels and axes -- rushed by on their way to battle.

Later, a wall of fire crept like lava along the mountainside toward Pickens Canyon homes. A tree would light up in a column of fire every few moments. On the streets, the air was still and quiet except for the crackle and roar of flames.

Firefighters climbed through backyards at the ends of the cul-de-sacs fronting the forest, laying their hoses and waiting to make a stand.

Capt. Kevin Klar of the Los Angeles County Fire Department was in place on Bristow Drive. "As far as the area goes, I think we're going to be all right," he said.

More than 1,800 firefighters from throughout California and the West used an arsenal of weapons to fight the flames.

Ten helicopters dropping buckets of water and eight air tankers were enlisted in the daytime fight.

Officials also are deploying at least one DC-10, one of the largest and most expensive pieces of firefighting equipment in the world.

Elsewhere, firefighters were on the verge of containing the Morris fire north of Azusa and a separate blaze on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Firefighters also made progress on a fire near Hemet in the San Bernardino National Forest, which has burned nearly 2,300 acres and was 30% contained.

As flames bore down on canyon cul-de-sacs in the Crescenta Valley into the evening, residents watched raptly as firefighters -- in the air and on the ground -- valiantly kept the fire away from homes.

On the northern edge of Altadena, a DC-10 unloading fire retardant at the base of a column of smoke received a standing ovation from residents in the 3900 block of Chapman Court, which had been under mandatory evacuation orders for an hour.

Among them was physician John Cooper, 52.

"I think the firefighters are doing an incredible job. I'm in awe. I'd like to line them all up and shake their hands one at a time -- and we also have our fingers crossed," Cooper said, acknowledging the precarious nature of his address. "Live on the edge, and you take your chances."

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