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Fire now 22% contained; some evacuations lifted, but Mt. Wilson still threatened

September 1, 2009 |  5:28 pm

Martinmars  

Firefighters today made significant progress on the Station fire, which is now 22% contained after burning 127,000 acres from Altadena to the edges of Santa Clarita.

Improving weather allowed firefighters to more aggressively attack the blaze, which slowed today. Evacuation orders in La Cañada Flintridge and La Crescenta have been lifted. Just this morning, officials said the blaze was 5% contained.

But at an afternoon news conference, officials tempered their optimism by saying the fire was still massive and that a change in weather conditions could again threaten homes.

Glendaleres

Crews were making good progress during the day on the fire's southern, northern and western fronts.

But firefighters were frantically trying to save the historic astronomical observatory and dozens of critical  TV and radio antennas from destruction. By 3 p.m., the fire was approaching closer than ever from two directions: one-half mile to the north and three-quarters of a mile to the west.

“We expect the fire to hit the Mt. Wilson facilities between 5 p.m. today and 2 a.m. Wednesday morning,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief James Powers. “Right now, we’re conducting controlled burns around the perimeter in preparation for the impending fire's arrival. We’re also bringing in trucks and special equipment to coat all of the structures with protective gel and foam if necessary. We do not plan to cover everything with a gooey mess.” 

The equipment was driven in on the two-lane, five-mile long Mt. Wilson Road, which intersects Angeles Crest Highway. Access to the road was restricted to firefighters and law enforcement. Fire lined several sections of the road on both sides, and rocks were falling from denuded hillsides.

As he spoke from his temporary headquarters in the observatory’s main office, myriad controlled burns set beneath canyon oaks and old cedars cloaked the mountaintop with dense acrid smoke.

The air was also filled with the ear-splitting, blaring sounds of an observatory fire alarm system.

Superscooper Chainsaws could be heard in every direction in the surrounding forest. Massive earth movers were being unloaded off flatbed trucks nearby. Powers said authorities had deliberately delayed diverting firefighters and equipment to the scene until the complex was in imminent danger.

“That time is now,” Powers said. Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Martin said. “We are going to burn, cut, foam and gel. And if that doesn’t work, we’re going to pray. This place is worth a lot, but it’s not worth dying for. ”

In a worst-case scenario, firefighters were expected to retreat to the safety of the observatory parking lot or seek refuge in the concrete and steel basement of the 105-year-old, 100-inch telescope observatory.

A Martin Mars air tanker, also known as a Super Scooper, dropped 7,500 gallons of water on Mt. Wilson, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Scott Visyak said.

--Louis Sahagun at Mt. Wilson, Corina Knoll at Hansen Dam and Ann M. Simmons in Glendale

Top photo: A modified Martin Mars seaplane tanker aircraft drops water to contain a fire threat to a historic observatory on Mt. Wilson northeast of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Sept. 01, 2009.  Credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Second photo: Residents of Glendale watch as flames from the Station fire get close to homes on Boston Avenue in Glendale. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times

Third photo: A Martin Mars Super Scooper plane flies over one of the telescopes on top of Mt. Wilson, moments before dropping 7,200 gallons of water to help prevent spreading flames from the approaching Station Fire around the Mt. Wilson Observatory and radio towers, Sept. 1, 2009. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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Twitter: Follow @latimescitydesk | @latimesfires

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