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The Station fire is out -- or is it?

The soil around Mt. Wilson Observatory still smolders, burning what root systems remain after the devastating Station fire was declared contained weeks ago. Fire crews are monitoring the area.

November 10, 2009|Baxter Holmes

More than a month ago, the Station fire was fully contained by firefighters.

But on Mt. Wilson, it doesn't look that way.

Dave Jurasevich has looked out the window of the Mt. Wilson Observatory and spotted several plumes of smoke in recent weeks since the worst fire in Los Angeles County history was declared contained.

"We don't see a lot of fire, but we see smoke -- and where there's smoke, there's fire, obviously," said Jurasevich, the superintendent at the observatory, which was evacuated twice during the Station fire.

Firefighters have been called in. Helicopters too. They're putting out hot spots where the fire smolders underground, burning through root systems.

If a gust of wind comes along and there's fuel present, those coals can again turn into flames.

"The fire's not out by any means," said Stanton Florea, a fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service. "Containment is when there's a line around it. Control is when there's no heat."

And control comes much later, Florea said.

"They told us it won't really be out until the real winter rains start," Jurasevich said.

The region did see rain for two days in mid-October, but at the observatory the rain gauge gathered only about 5 inches.

"It wasn't enough," Jurasevich said.

The burn areas are faced with a sort of Catch-22: More rains would douse smoldering root systems, but they could also cause mudslides in the communities that sit below the barren hillsides of the Angeles National Forest.

The Station fire, which authorities believe was started by an arsonist in late August, burned 160,000 acres, destroyed dozens of dwellings and killed two firefighters. It has cost more than $95 million to fight.

The phenomenon of root systems smoldering underground is something firefighters have dealt with before, though it is considered rare. There are cases when large logs continue to smolder weeks after a fire; or when a large pile of dirt and wood along a fire line smokes for days after flames have subsided.

Fred Thompson, superintendent for the Helena Hotshots, a group of specialized firefighters who are often called in for large forest fires, has seen it for himself.

He spent 15 days at the Mt. Wilson Observatory during the Station fire, providing structure protection.

Thompson said he has heard of fires in the northern Rocky Mountains that burn through the fall and into the winter when heavy snow falls -- and when the snow melts in the spring, the fire that had been burning slowly underground reignites.

One tactic to prevent this, Thompson said, is to dig up large stumps near the edge of a fire line and feel around for heat below the surface of the soil. Another is to cut deep lines with a bulldozer, severing root systems on the edge of a fire.

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baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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