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Wildfire burns 35,000 acres; shift in winds threatens more homes

August 30, 2009 |  8:08 am

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An out-of-control wildfire in the Angeles National Forest has burned more than 35,000 acres and is threatening an ever-widening swath of communities from Acton near the Antelope Valley to Altadena in the San Gabriel Valley.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Bill Sanchez said fire crews needed to cut about 110 miles of fire line to stop the fire’s trajectory.

He said the wind changed direction overnight, particularly in the mountainous areas of the Angeles National Forest, to a down-canyon wind, which pushed it toward some residential areas.

“Due to the volatility at the top of some of the areas, it is going to be really challenging,” Sanchez said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. There is quite a bit of instability at the top of the fire.”

Weary firefighters were hoping for slightly cooler weather and more resources today as they battled the Station fire.

The fire marched north overnight through remote mountain ridges toward Acton. The U.S. Forest Service was sending firefighters into those areas, which have become the northern edge of the blaze. Mandatory evacuations were in effect in La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena, La Crescenta, Altadena, Glendale and Big Tujunga Canyon.

Today is supposed to be the last day of a five-day heat wave that has brought triple-digit temperatures along the fire lines. Forecasters said temperatures will drop a few degrees today and that lower temperatures, morning clouds and more humidity are on tap for the next few days.

But even with no winds in the forecast, firefighters said the conditions remain highly dangerous.

Forest Service officials said three civilians were burned and airlifted from rural Big Tujunga Canyon, where at least three to five homes were destroyed. One fire official, after surveying the canyon, estimated that the toll may be much worse.

On the southwestern front of the fire, the canyon and sloping backyards in the Paradise Valley subdivision continued to burn throughout the early-morning hours. But in some spots, the fire seemed to slow, giving crews a chance to allow brush to burn out.

At the end of Ocean View Boulevard, firefighters with the North County Fire from San Diego County guarded a brick-and-stucco home and watched patches of brush burn close by.

"We're not going to go after the fire, we are going to let the fire come to us," said Capt. Barry Krumwiede. "These trees are already gone so there's no point in going after them." Along the steep slope, pockets of fire and flying embers neared the pine trees.

The trees, because of their weight and pine needles, serve as excellent fuel for the fire and were a bigger threat to the house. The firefighters' most immediate concern was to keep the pine trees from catching fire but, at the same time, let other brush burn itself out.

"I wish I had good news for you," Les Curtis, a fire operations chief, said during a night briefing for firefighters. He shook his head and pointed to the map of the expanding fire zone. "How many of you have knots in your stomach?" he asked. More than a dozen raised their hands.

"Nothing can stop it," said Jost Vielmetter, 62, a Caltech scientist who watched the flames from the northern edge of Altadena.

At sundown Saturday, as scattered power outages hit the area, flames encircled the ridges near Briggs Terrace on the northeastern edge of La Crescenta. By 7:30 p.m., the northern end of Pickens Canyon, close to the neighborhood, exploded in flames.

"Oh, my God. This is what I've been dreading all day," said David Ferrera, 35, who grew up in the area.

It was the first time that he and his neighbors were seized with worry. At that point, clouds of glowing embers began floating up from the fire. Suddenly, so-called hotshots -- firefighters with shovels and axes -- rushed by on their way to battle.

Later, a wall of fire crept like lava along the mountainside toward Pickens Canyon homes. A tree would light up in a column of fire every few moments. On the streets, the air was still and quiet except for the crackle and roar of flames.

Firefighters climbed through backyards at the ends of the cul-de-sacs fronting the forest, laying their hoses and waiting to make a stand.

Capt. Kevin Klar of the Los Angeles County Fire Department was in place on Bristow Drive. "As far as the area goes, I think we're going to be all right," he said.

More than 1,800 firefighters from throughout California and the West used an arsenal of weapons to fight the flames.

Ten helicopters dropping buckets of water and eight air tankers were enlisted in the daytime fight.

Officials also are deploying at least one DC-10, one of the largest and most expensive pieces of firefighting equipment in the world.

Elsewhere, firefighters were on the verge of containing the Morris fire north of Azusa and a separate blaze on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Firefighters also made progress on a fire near Hemet in the San Bernardino National Forest, which has burned nearly 2,300 acres and was 30% contained.

As flames bore down on canyon cul-de-sacs in the Crescenta Valley into the evening, residents watched raptly as firefighters -- in the air and on the ground -- valiantly kept the fire away from homes.

On the northern edge of Altadena, a DC-10 unloading fire retardant at the base of a column of smoke received a standing ovation from residents in the 3900 block of Chapman Court, which had been under mandatory evacuation orders for an hour.

Among them was physician John Cooper, 52.

"I think the firefighters are doing an incredible job. I'm in awe. I'd like to line them all up and shake their hands one at a time -- and we also have our fingers crossed," Cooper said, acknowledging the precarious nature of his address. "Live on the edge, and you take your chances."

Evacuated residents could only wait, watch and worry as flames licked the ridges near their homes. Some La Cañada Flintridge residents were evacuated Friday night, but on Saturday that mandatory evacuation order widened to parts of Altadena, La Crescenta, north Glendale and Big Tujunga Canyon. More evacuations were expected throughout the night.

All faced the same nerve-racking drill: the automated phone calls ordering them to leave, the choices about what to pack up, the negotiations with skittish pets refusing to be stuffed into portable kennels.

In Glendale, in the evacuation area north of Santa Carlotta Road, residents were packing up their cars and watering their lawns after being notified to leave.

Joanna Linkchorst, 42, dashed around her house videotaping her belongings, but appeared possessed of a preternatural calm. "For some reason I'm not concerned," she said. "There are far too many houses that would have to burn before it gets down here."

Although authorities stressed that people should not defy evacuation orders -- it puts them as well as fire and police personnel at risk -- some did anyway.

-- Raja Abdulrahim in La Crescenta, Alexandra Zavis in La Canada Flintridge and Cara Mia DiMassa

Photo: Orange County Sheriff's deputies watch the fire's glow at a checkpoint on Ocean View Blvd. as the Station Fire rages near homes in the Angeles National Forest in La Canada Flintridge.

Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

 More photos

 Photos: Southland wildfires

 Map: The Station Fire

 Related articles:

- Schwarzenegger urges residents in path of flames to flee as fire roars in three directions
- Firefighters endure long night in La Crescenta battling flames
- Fires create another bad-air day in parts of Los Angeles
- La Crescenta homeowners defy evacuation order, band together to fight flames

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