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Evacuations extended into Altadena as relentless heat fuels growing Station fire

August 29, 2009 | 12:59 pm


Mandatory evacuations were extended today into Altadena neighborhoods as firefighters work in relentless heat to battle the Station fire in the La Cañada Flintridge area, which flared as midday temperature reached triple digits.

Temperatures topping 100 degrees, single-digit humidity and the steep, rugged topography of the Angeles Forest continue to make the fire a formidable foe despite low winds, fire officials said today.

"All of a sudden, it flared up," said Bruce Quintelier, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. Earlier this morning the flames were creeping through canyons and hillsides, and the flames are beginning to approach homes in both La Cañada Flintridge near Highway 2 and the Meadows neighborhood between two canyons on the northwestern tip of Altadena.

Massive and ominous-looking smoke plumes continue to envelop the area and have made for poor air quality, falling ash and smoky odors throughout the Los Angeles Basin and San Fernando Valley. Outside the fire command post today at the Hansen Dam Recreation Center in Lake View Terrace, the air is so choked with smoke that it resembles a London fog.

Literally adding fuel to the fire is 20-to-30-foot-high brush that has not burned in 60 years, said Mike Dietrich, incident commander from the Forest Service.

The fire is only 5% contained. “If there’s a silver lining, there are no Santa Ana winds expected at this time,” Dietrich said.

The latest mandatory evacuation zones include scores of homes in Altadena, including the Meadows neighborhood between El Prieto Canyon and Millard Canyon. Homes along Canyon Crest Road, Rising Hill Road, Aralia Road and surrounding streets are also being evacuated.

In La Cañada Flintridge, evacuated streets include neighborhoods on the northern edge of the city closest to the Angeles Crest Highway, generally between La Cañada Boulevard to the La Cañada Flintridge Golf Course.

More than 2,000 homes and 52 other structures are threatened in the La Cañada Flintridge area. Fire has burned right up to homes, but no structures have been destroyed. About 751 firefighters are deployed. One suffered minor heat-related injuries and was hospitalized overnight. He is expected to be released today.

Today, the priority for firefighters is the so-called front country, the area closest to homes. Firefighters are attacking it with air tankers and shovels. Super Scooper planes are not expected until Thursday -- welcome but not essential, fire officials said.

“Super Scoopers are just another tool in the tool box. If they’re available, we’ll take advantage of it,”  said Dietrich.

Firefighters are also keeping an eye on Mt. Wilson, which is six to eight miles east of the fire. “That’s several days out. It gives us an opportunity to prepare and defend the Mt. Wilson site,” said L.A. County Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Powers, an incident commander.

As evacuations widen, residents along foothill communities are on edge.

Fire officials said the Station fire has grown to more than 7,000 acres today.

One leg of the fire was moving southeast toward Altadena. Another leg was moving north, and officials said they are trying to prevent it from getting to the communications centers at Mt. Wilson. A western leg was moving toward Big Tujunga Canyon.

Authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders for scores of homes in the area of La Cañada Flintridge Golf Course. The orders include Starlight Crest Drive, Greenridge Drive, Forest Green Drive and Ridge Court, said Sgt. Daniel Stanley of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The communities are east of the Angeles Crest Highway.

Residents were asked to assemble their families and leave the area. An evacuation center has been set up at La Cañada High School, at 4463 Oak Grove Drive, where the Red Cross will help those from the evacuation area.

Donna Robinson, 60, has been preparing to be evacuated since Wednesday, packing up documents, clothes, baby dish mementos of her adult children. She also packed up two dogs and three cats.

“I’m not even afraid now. I think it's good we're just out of the house. Now, I feel its not under my control,” said Robinson as she sat with her husband, Paul, 57, outside the gym of the La Cañada Flintridge High School, which had been turned into an evacuation center by the Red Cross.

This morning, residents began to slowly stream into the high school.

The worry was evident on Sonia Castellon's face as she made her way into the makeshift evacuation center.

"I was trying to keep calm, keep it together. But the moment you leave your home it's hard," the 46-year-old dentist said as she began to tear up.

Castellon said she had packed a large amount of valuables throughout the day just in case, since she said the fire was getting worse near her Greenridge Drive home. She packed away pictures, jewelry, cash, and discs and cards with family memories -- things that cannot be replaced.

"We had two hours from when they called, and it was already after 11 [p.m.] when we got the call. I'm scared of not having a house when we go back."

Having to evacuate was especially tough for Castellon's daughter, Carla Torres. They were in the midst of preparing for her sweet 16 birthday party. Although she hopes the party at the Castaway Restaurant and Banquet Center in Burbank offers a temporary relief, Torres said she didn't see herself waking up on her birthday at her high school.

"It's really scary right now," Torres said.

In all, nearly 10,000 acres had burned in the four major fires by Friday evening. In addition to those wildfires, two separate blazes scorched about 1,000 acres in sprawling Camp Pendelton in San Diego County. Neither fire threatened structures.

An air assault through the night helped bring the Palos Verdes Peninsula fire under 90% containment Friday. Expensive homes in Rolling Hills and Rancho Palos Verdes had been threatened, with flames lapping at the eaves of some residences.

The blaze consumed 230 acres.

In steep terrain above Hemet, a San Bernardino National Forest wildfire was just 10% contained, but was not posing an immediate threat to structures, although 2,200 acres had burned. A mandatory evacuation order in the Willowbrook Road area was lifted, but voluntary evacuation advisories remained for Bee Canyon.

The Morris fire, which started five miles north of Azusa near San Gabriel Canyon Road, blackened more than 2,000 acres and was 85% contained, officials said. The fire was burning in mostly open mountain country, but voluntary evacuations were in effect for the North Fork of the San Gabriel River.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department warned the public to avoid outdoor activities. Air quality deteriorated throughout the day as temperatures climbed, becoming unhealthful for sensitive people in western San Bernardino and Riverside counties as well as in the San Fernando Valley.

-- Ann Simmons in La Cañada Flintridge, with Carla Hall and Rong-Gong Lin II in Los Angeles

Photo: A plane drops fire retardant on a burning hillside above homes in Altadena on August 29th, 2009. Credit: Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times