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Amid weather change, firefighters express some optimism about Station fire fight [Updated]

September 1, 2009 |  9:32 am

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Increasing humidity and slightly cooling temperatures this morning brought the first signs of hopefulness from firefighters battling the Station fire. 

"I’m feeling a lot more optimistic today than I did yesterday," said U.S. Forest Service Incident Cmdr. Mike Dietrich. "We made progress last night, not just due to humidity, but good darn firefighting. They're fighting for every foot."

And though officially the fire is still at 5% containment, Dietrich said officials will reassess that figure today and that he expected it to go up substantially. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.  No additional homes were reported destroyed, but damages are estimated at $13.6 million.

The containment date still stands at Sept. 15.

On Monday, Dietrich characterized the fire as "angry" and "vindictive," but today he compared it to his own children: "cranky and stubborn for no apparent reason." 

About 3,600 personnel remain involved in fighting the fire, and an ongoing concern is getting firefighters enough rest and water. On Friday, one firefighter was hospitalized with renal kidney failure due to dehydration, but he is in better condition now. In order to ensure the firefighters are getting adequate rest, officials have set up a camp in the Santa Clarita area, a closer alternative to the command center at Hansen Dam, Dietrich said.

The massive blaze, which has burned more than 50 structures, killed two firefighters and caused thousands of evacuations, grew by about 15,000 acres over the last 12 hours. That's a smaller rate of growth than Sunday or Monday, but officials are still on guard.

Despite the improved weather, officials said they worried about the possibility of gusty winds and dry lightning.

After a six-day heat wave, forecasters say an onshore flow will return today, dropping temperatures on the fire lines to the low 90s, with some gusty winds at mountain peaks. Humidity is also expected to increase.

In the once-threatened area of Briggs Terrace, firefighters using flares set backfires from the top of the ridge gradually down toward the homes. The burnouts neutralized the danger of the wildfire coming down, said Nathan Judy of the U.S. Forest Service. 

"Everybody in that neighborhood has nothing to worry about," he said."There's no fuel to burn. We took it away." 

Firefighters cut a break between the homes and the burnout nearest them, but the winds were blowing upslope during the operation anyway, Judy said.

The Station fire, the largest of several in the state, was plowing through dense hillside vegetation along the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting a remarkable swath that extends from Altadena into the high desert.

Despite the fire's sprawling dimensions, stretching up to 25 miles from east to west and 18 miles from north to south, aggressive ground and aerial assaults managed to confine the blaze to largely undeveloped areas. Losses from the fire rose Monday when officials learned that more than 30 cabins, homes and other structures were destroyed in the remote Big Tujunga Canyon area.

And on the fire's eastern flank, officials were still hoping a concerted effort to hack away tree limbs, cut fire breaks and lay down fire retardant would spare the Mt. Wilson Observatory and a key complex of communications towers used for over-the-air broadcasting by nearly 50 radio and television stations.

[Updated, 10:05 a.m.:  Authorities are allowing firefighters to return to Mt. Wilson to continue fighting the fire from that location. The area was closed to everyone, including firefighters Monday morning.]

Weary fire crews trading 12-hour shifts had little time Monday to mourn the deaths of two L.A. County firefighters killed Sunday when their truck overturned on a mountain road.

Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, and firefighter specialist Arnaldo Quinones, 34, were part of a team of 65 firefighters -- mostly jail inmates -- trying to defend a camp when flames made a sudden run at their positions, said County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman. An investigation is continuing, but preliminary indications are that Hall and Quinones were trying to reposition a fire truck, which then tumbled 800 feet down a steep slope. Other firefighters suffered minor injuries in a rescue effort, Freeman said.

At Mt. Wilson, the intensity and unpredictability of the blaze, which continued shifting directions, forced fire crews to pull back from the mountaintop on Monday. With the blaze burning on both sides of the only access road to the complex, firefighters could become trapped if the inferno suddenly raced up the canyon walls.

The drama of families having to flee their homes -- or risking all to try to defend their property -- played out repeatedly as searing heat and a generation of accumulated hillside growth fed the fires.

There was confusion and concern when six people refused to evacuate from Gold Canyon near Little Tujunga, officials said. Conflicting reports through the day said the group wanted to stay, or be rescued, after firefighters lighted backfires to battle the blaze in the area. Sheriff's deputies returned to the area three times, officials said, but it appeared the group was not leaving.

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

"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 coupe. Next, he planned to move a black 1911 Buick Model 33.

-- Corina Knoll and Hector Becerra at Hansen Dam, Ann M. Simmons in Tujunga

Photo: Lt. Curt Graham,  a Sutter County firefighter, keeps an eye on the Station blaze near La Crescenta. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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Firemap295
Interactive map: The Station fire

Huge wildfire shows little sign of slowing down

Firefighters died in effort to escape

Evacuee who may have lost home awaits word on animals left behind

Mt. Wilson webcam: The 150-Foot Solar Tower

L.A. County Fire Department: The latest

Twitter: Follow @latimescitydesk | @latimesfires

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