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Bad weather delays setting of backfire in Angeles National Forest blaze

Heavy winds, temperatures in the low 90s and low humidity prevent the controlled burn. Also, detectives appeal for help from those who were on Angeles Crest Highway the day the Station fire started.

September 09, 2009|Richard Winton and Robert J. Lopez

Bad weather continued to vex crews battling the huge Station fire Tuesday, forcing a crucial backfire operation to be postponed for a second day in a row.

The backfire, or controlled burn, was canceled because of heavy winds, temperatures in the low 90s and relative humidity around 10%, officials said.

The tactic, designed to help tame the blaze by allowing crews to burn fuel ahead of the main fire front, can be done only when weather conditions are such that firefighters can ignite the brush without risk of it exploding out of control.

"We want to control that fire. We don't want it to control us," said Nathan Judy, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Also on Tuesday, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said local, state and federal authorities need to come up with a plan to better protect vital communication towers on Mt. Wilson, which were threatened as the deadly blaze burned out of control.

Freeman said in an interview that a massive fire break, covered with concrete or some other fire-resistant substance, needs to be built around the perimeter of the communications center. He said he would present a more detailed plan later to the county Board of Supervisors. "We dodged a bullet," Freeman said. "We need to build a sufficient buffer so this never happens again."

The Station fire killed two county firefighters whose truck plummeted down a canyon. The blaze, which has destroyed dozens of structures, had grown to more than 160,000 acres by Tuesday night and was 60% contained.

Officials suspect that the wildfire was deliberately set. Homicide detectives with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Tuesday that they were looking for anyone who was traveling on Angeles Crest Highway just above La Canada Flintridge about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 26, the day the fire ignited near Mile Marker 29.

"Obviously, if someone saw something that day, we would like them to come forward and speak to investigators," said Steve Whitmore, a department spokesman.

The Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, has approved a $50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person who set the deadly fire. State authorities already have established a $100,000 reward.

Investigators believe a substance found near the Station fire's point of origin helped ignite the blaze. The substance is a key piece of evidence in the arson probe, a source told The Times.

The source would not identify the substance but said it was found in the brush off Angeles Crest Highway. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing, said the substance was taken to a lab for testing to further verify arson investigators' findings. Investigators were poring over a database of arson suspects and firebugs in search of leads, according to sources.

More than 4,600 firefighters -- some from as far away as Georgia, Idaho and Montana -- were cutting breaks and dousing hot spots Tuesday. Officials were optimistic but noted that 48 miles of line still must be cut to fully encircle the 250-square-mile wildfire.

Judy of the Forest Service said crews were hoping for a break in the weather today so they could begin backfires in areas east of Mt. Wilson and west of Cogswell Dam.

In Washington, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging him to use federal resources to prevent erosion and mudslides in the burned areas.

"I want to raise the need to focus on the aftermath in areas that have been denuded of trees and brush," Boxer said.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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