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Huge wildfire shows little sign of slowing down

The Station blaze has destroyed more than 50 buildings and burned more than 105,000 acres of mountainous brush. Little hope of containment is seen as long as hot, dry conditions continue.

September 01, 2009|Corina Knoll, Louis Sahagun and Rich Connell

A voracious 6-day-old wildfire that has destroyed more than 50 buildings and churned through more than 105,000 acres of mountainous brush showed only small signs of slowing Monday, and fire officials offered little hope of containment as long as hot, dry conditions continued.

The Station fire, the largest of several burning in the state, was plowing through dense hillside vegetation along the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting a remarkable swath that extended from Altadena into the high desert. On Monday, the fire advanced to the west, bringing new evacuations to Sunland-Tujunga and coming within a few miles of Santa Clarita.

Despite the fire's sprawling dimensions, stretching up to 25 miles from east to west and 18 miles from north to south, aggressive ground and aerial assaults managed to contain the blaze to largely undeveloped areas.

And on the fire's eastern flank, officials were still hoping a concerted effort to hack away tree limbs, cut fire breaks and lay down fire retardant would spare the Mt. Wilson Observatory and a key complex of communications towers, used for over-the-air broadcasting by nearly 50 radio and television stations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Fire map: A map of the Station fire in Tuesday's Section A mislabeled the San Gabriel Valley communities to the east of Altadena from left to right as Sierra Madre, Monrovia, Arcadia and Bradbury. In order, the labels should have been Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia and Monrovia.

"There have been hundreds of homes saved in this effort," said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant.

But the outlook for the coming days remains "treacherous," said Mike Dietrich, incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service. "This is a very angry fire. Until we get a change in the weather conditions, I am not overly optimistic. The fire is headed just about anywhere it wants."

Dangerous conditions were expected to increase the risk the blaze could reach new communities in the Antelope, Santa Clarita and San Gabriel valleys. More than 6,000 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders, and full control of the blaze was not expected until well after Labor Day, even as the number of firefighters on the lines swelled to more than 3,700.

By late Monday night, however, some officials offered a sliver of hope during a briefing with firefighters. They said the blaze burned fastest between 6 p.m. Sunday and 6 a.m. Monday, but that its pace appeared to slow during the day Monday.

Losses from the fire spiked Monday when officials learned that more than 30 cabins, homes and other structures were destroyed in the remote Big Tujunga Canyon area. Officials estimated multimillion-dollar losses but stressed they were still tallying the destruction as inspectors reached burned areas.

Weary fire crews trading 12-hour shifts had little time Monday to mourn the deaths of two L.A. County firefighters killed Sunday when their truck overturned on a mountain road.

Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, and firefighter specialist Arnaldo Quinones, 34, were part of a team of 65 firefighters -- mostly jail inmates -- trying to defend a camp when flames made a sudden run at their positions, said county Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman. An investigation is continuing, but preliminary indications are that Hall and Quinones were trying to reposition a firetruck, which then tumbled 800 feet down a steep slope. Other firefighters suffered minor injuries in a rescue effort, Freeman said.

At Mt. Wilson, the intensity and unpredictability of the blaze, which continued shifting directions, forced fire crews to pull back from the mountaintop. With the blaze burning on both sides of the only access road to the complex, firefighters could become trapped if the inferno suddenly raced up the canyon walls.

The drama of families having to flee their homes -- or risking all to try to defend their property -- played out repeatedly as searing heat and a generation of accumulated hillside growth fed the fires.

There was confusion and concern when six people refused to evacuate from Gold Canyon near Little Tujunga, officials said. Conflicting reports through the day said the group wanted to stay, or be rescued, after firefighters lit backfires to battle the blaze in the area. Sheriff's deputies returned to the area three times, officials said, but it appeared the group was not leaving.

As billows of white and black smoke danced ominously close in the Sunland-Tujunga area, Chuck Horn ushered his family and his two prized collectors automobiles away from his home.

"We took pictures, tax returns, insurance forms, the dog, the chicken, and that's it," Horn, 61, a retired L.A. County public works employee, said as he prepared to drive away in his baby blue 1931 Plymouth coupe. Next, he planned to move a black 1911 Buick Model 33.

Sallie Lynne heard from a neighbor that her home on Aliso Canyon Road near Acton had burned down. She waited anxiously Monday at a roadblock a few miles away, hoping to find out what had happened to the animals she left behind: one blind cow, two calves, 20 sheep and 50 chickens.

"We just want to go up there and see how bad it is," she said.

Another fire in San Bernardino County was spreading out of control and threatening 2,000 homes in the apple-growing community of Oak Glen near Yucaipa.

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