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L.A. County fire has destroyed more than 50 buildings, remains out of control [Updated]

August 31, 2009 |  6:30 pm

Alseib

The number of structures burned by the Station fire has surged to more than 50 as the out-of-control wildfire pushed west and north, officials say.

More than 30 homes, mountain cabins and other buildings were destroyed when the fire swept through the hamlet of Stonyvale in Tujunga Canyon. Earlier officials had said 21 homes were lost, mostly in remote areas in Tujunga Canyon and south of Acton.

[Updated, 8:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this story said 74 structures had been lost. Fire officials now say the losses stand at more than 50 but that the number may grow as they survey more damage in the canyon.]

The fire showed little sign of slowing down this afternoon as it threatened 12,000 homes in suburban tracts and desert communities, along with a historic observatory and major array of television and radio transmission towers.

“The fire is headed just about anywhere it wants to,” said Mike Dietrich, an incident commander with the Forest Service. “This is a very angry fire. Until we get a change in the weather conditions, I am not overly optimistic.”

[Updated, 8:55 p.m.: A previous version of this post identified Mike Dietrich as a deputy fire chief with the L.A. County Fire Department.  He works for the U.S. Forest Service.]

With afternoon winds picking up, the Station fire, the largest of eight burning in the state, was plowing through dense hillside vegetation and steep terrain toward residential areas of Sunland and Santa Clarita on the west.

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

"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 three-window coupe. Horn was next planning on moving his black 1911 Buick Model 33 away from the blaze.

Alseib2

To the east, firefighters were hoping that a concerted effort to cut fire breaks and lay down fire retardant would save the Mt. Wilson Observatory and a key complex of communications towers.

Because of the intensity and unpredictability of the blaze, which continued shifting directions, fire crews had to pull out of the mountaintop area today and wait for the firestorm to pass.

By 3 p.m. the southeastern edge of the Station fire had pushed south against the wind, into the upper west fork of the San Gabriel River drainage. This fire was near the base of Mt. Wilson’s north side. Firefighters had begun back-burning brush at the juncture of California 2 and Mt. Wilson Road in order to protect structures, including an American Indian cultural center, from the advancing fire.

The drama of families having to flee their homes -- or risking all to try and defend their property -- played out repeatedly as searing heat and a generation of accumulated hillside growth fed the fires. In Gold Canyon, authorities scrambled to rescue five people who had refused to evacuate.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s helicopter was trying to locate the residents near Little Tujunga Road.  They pleaded for help after becoming trapped by back fires set by crews trying to fight the blaze.

Sixty-five firefighters withdrew from Chilao Flats near the Chilao ranger station.  "The intensity of the fire was too strong," said L.A. County Fire Capt. Henry Rodriguez. "They were pulled off the lines and drove away in their vehicles. They're safe and all OK."

Another fire in San Bernardino County was spreading completely out of control and threatening 2,000 homes near Yucaipa.

-- Rich Connell and Corina Knoll

Photos: Damaged buildings and burned trees are all that remains of Mt. Gleason Fire Camp 16, which housed inmates trained in wilderness protection before it was destroyed by a firestorm that swept through Sunday afternoon. Two Los Angeles County firefighters who supervised the inmates died when their vehicle plunged off a cliff, and officials are investigating the incident. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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