L.A. County fire doubles in size; more homes destroyed; Mt. Wilson threatened [Updated]
The exact number of homes consumed by the Station fire remains unclear, but officials said several homes south of Acton, on the fire's northern flank, were lost last night and this morning. Earlier, 18 homes in the Tujunga Canyon area were lost, but officials expect the number to rise.More neighborhoods were evacuated overnight as the fire pushed in three directions. Officials said the blaze had not yet burned to the top of Mt. Wilson, where critical communications centers are located, but they said that area remains highly vulnerable. Firefighters remained atop the mountain this morning, trying to protect the TV and radio transmitters.
"We are making progress. But it is very slow and very dangerous," incident commander Mike Dietrich of the U.S. Forest Service said at a news conference this morning. "We have to wait for the fire to come to us." [Updated at 8:15 a.m.: A previous version of the post misidentified Dietrich as working for the L.A. County Fire Department.]
At the bottom of Mt. Wilson Road early this morning, firefighters bedded down in the ash-flecked open air, the forest pitch black except for the flames lighting ridgelines in the near distance. The head of the fire appeared to be across a broad and deep canyon from the Mt. Wilson compound.
Smaller flare-ups could be seen closer to the thicket of communications towers alongside the observatory, where five engine crews were posted overnight.
The blaze already had raced up to the winding stretch of Angeles Crest Highway that leads to Mt. Wilson Road, and the lanes remained barely passable in sections. Road signs had melted, guardrails were burned free of their wood moorings, and the switchbacks were choked with fire-loosened boulders and scorched tree limbs.
Two firefighters were killed when they drove off the side of a treacherous road in the Mt. Gleason area, south of Acton, around 2:30 p.m. Sunday, said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant. They were later identified as Arnaldo Quinones, 35, of Palmdale and Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County.
"This accident is tragic," Bryant said, choking up as he spoke Sunday evening. "This is a very difficult time for L.A. County Fire Department and the men and women that serve day in, day out."
More than 12,500 homes were threatened, and 6,600 were under mandatory evacuation orders Sunday night. Eighteen residences have been destroyed, fire officials said, mostly in the Big Tujunga Canyon area.
The fire was 5% contained, officials said, and at least temporarily had eased off in foothill communities from La Cañada Flintridge to Altadena.
Much of Sunday turned into a blistering-hot waiting game for firefighters, who were trying to determine where the fire would move next. Rather than battling the flames in the sheer granite canyons of the interior, with heavy vegetation more than 40 years old in many areas, they cut fire lines near threatened neighborhoods.
"In this rugged, steep terrain, with this brush as thick as it is, we are having difficulties establishing containment lines where we can make a stand," said Capt. Mark Savage, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "This fire is still very much out of control."
Fire was burning all around Angeles Crest Highway near Mt. Wilson on Sunday evening. Earlier, hand crews cleared brush to protect the historic observatory and critical transmission towers for local television and radio stations.
By 9 p.m. a strike team was positioned to protect the observatory and transmission towers, but the flames had not reached the site at the top of the 5,710-foot peak above Pasadena.
Standing at the base of Mt. Wilson Road, U.S. Forest Service Fuels Battalion Chief Larry Peabody said five fire engines would be at the peak throughout the night. "Their mission is to defend the antennas, the observatory and the buildings," he said Sunday night.
The century-old observatory holds what was for decades the largest telescope in the world; it was instrumental in many of astronomy's biggest discoveries, including research that led to the "big bang" theory.
"It's a serious situation. Is the observatory going to make it? We're doing everything in our power. But I wouldn't be surprised if it is impacted by fire today or tomorrow," Bob Shindelar, operations branch director of California Incident Management Team 5, said Sunday afternoon.
More than 2,800 fire personnel from around the state have converged to battle the Station fire, along with 12 helicopters and eight air tankers.
They had hoped that the day would bring cooler, more humid air. But the red-flag fire alert was extended through today as the fire grew in all directions and sent a column of smoke high into the air -- mushrooming into a towering pyrocumulus cloud that could be seen across the Southland.
Meteorologists predicted that hot, dry conditions would continue without relent until at least Tuesday.
-- Paul Pringle at Mt. Wilson and Hector Becerra at Hansen Dam
Photo: The Station fire burns down a ridge toward Sunland on Sunday evening. The wildfire has doubled in size to 85,000 acres and destroyed more structures.
Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times
Photos: Southland wildfires