Huge wildfire may omen of bad Calif. fire season

LOS ANGELES - September 1, 2009 PHOTOS: Images from California residents
MAP: Get reports based on the fires' locations

U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich says containment Tuesday rose from 5 percent to 22 percent. The fire area now covers 199 square miles.

Damage assessment teams report that the number of residences destroyed has been raised to 62 from the previous estimate of 53.

The Sheriff's Department says the number of homes under evacuation orders has been reduced to 4,000.

The commander of the vast firefighting operation expressed a positive outlook for the first time in the week since the blaze erupted in the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles and grew into a giant.

"I'm feeling a lot more optimistic today than I did yesterday and the crews are doing fabulous work out there on the grounds but the bottom line is that they're fighting for every foot," said Mike Dietrich of the U.S. Forest Service.

Some 3,600 firefighters and aircraft were working across a 50-mile span to battle the blaze.

"There's action everywhere," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said as a thundering helicopter interrupted his news conference at the scene of two other wildfires burning in the inland region east of Los Angeles.

Firefighters were keeping a close eye on the weather. Hurricane Jimena roared toward Baja California, but was not forecast to have much of a factor in firefighting efforts because it is expected to dissipate by the time it hits Southern California.

Meteorologist Curt Kaplan says there was a 20 percent chance of a thunderstorm in the fire area Tuesday, but that could end up being a bad thing because the storm could spawn 40-mph wind gusts. The one factor that's helped firefighters this week has been the lack of wind to drive the flames. Kaplan says temperatures will begin slowly cooling later in the week.

"The good news is that it's humidity," Dietrich said. "The bad news is that it may produce lightning, possibly dry lightning, over parts of the fire area."

About 2,000 people were chased from their homes in triple-digit heat as fire bosses said it could take weeks to contain the fire. Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal said Tuesday that the blaze is expected to be fully surrounded Sept. 15.

Some people wouldn't leave. Authorities said five men and one woman refused several orders to evacuate a remote ranch in a canyon near Gold Creek. The Los Angeles County sheriff's office had initially said the people were trapped and could not be rescued.

"When we tried to get them out, they said they're fine, no problem, they didn't want to leave," said fire spokesman Larry Marinas.

Dietrich said people who choose to stay take their lives in their own hands.

"As the sheriff said, they'll take their next of kin and ask where their dental records are stored and we'll go back in after it. We can't be their guardians or parents."

The swath of fire extends from the densely populated foothill communities of Altadena, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Tujunga and Sunland on the south to the high desert Acton in the north.

Beth Halaas knew her creekside home in Big Tujunga Canyon was gone when she saw her favorite Norwegian dishware on television news. But she was desperate to see for herself and cajoled fire officials to escort her through barricaded roads.

"It's just stuff," she murmured, as her 5-year-old son Robert kicked at a deflated soccer ball in his sandbox. She raked ceramic cups from the ashes.

Two firefighters - Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale - were killed when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road on Sunday. Quinones' wife is expecting a child any week, and Hall has a wife and two adult children.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama "send their condolences" to the familes of two firefighters who died battling the blaze. Gibbs said the White House was receiving updates on the fires and will do whatever it can from the federal level to assist state and local governments.

The 60+ homes destroyed included some forest cabins, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross. He did not know how many were full-time residences.

At late morning, the fire was close to facilities at the historic observatory on Mount Wilson northeast of Los Angeles, a KCBS-KCAL TV helicopter showed from above the 5,700-foot-high peak.

The flames appeared small, however, creeping under trees on land with no thick brush. Firefighters were on the mountain.

Fire crews earlier set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, which is also the site of at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and cell phone antennas. The observatory is home to giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs in its role as both a landmark for its discoveries and a thriving modern center for astronomy.

T.J. Lynch and his wife, Maggie, were among residents who evacuated late Monday after the eerie orange glow on the horizon turned into flames cresting the hill near their Tujunga home.

"It's pretty surreal, pretty humbling, how your life is represented in these objects that you collect and then you have to whittle them down," he said, describing the difficulty of choosing what to bring with them.

He said his wife would miss the 1965 Mustang that she has owned since she was a teenager. He would miss the antiques that decorate their home.

"It's a beautiful place - is? Was? I don't know anymore," he said of their home.

The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills was the biggest but not most destructive of California's wildfires. Northeast of Sacramento, a wind-driven fire destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn.

The 340-acre blaze wiped out an entire cul-de-sac, leaving only smoldering ruins, a handful of chimneys and burned cars. The fire was 80 percent contained Tuesday and no longer threatened any homes, said MaryAnn Aldrich, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

East of Los Angeles, firefighters had 40 percent containment of 1,013-acre fire that damaged one home, threatened 2,000 others and forced the evacuation of a scenic community of apple orchards in the Oak Glen area of San Bernardino County.

A few miles away, an 840-acre wildfire on the edge of Yucaipa was 25 percent contained but rising winds Tuesday morning were pushing flames toward the community. Some 2,100 residents of 900 homes were urged to evacuate, said Jason Meyer, a state forestry spokesman.


Associated Press Writers John Antczak, Daisy Nguyen and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles and Samantha Young in Auburn contributed to this report.

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