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Firefighters holding back flames on both western and eastern flanks of fire

September 3, 2009 |  2:40 pm

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Firefighters so far were holding back flames that were threatening parts of Pacoima Canyon, well-known recreation areas and an observatory above Pasadena as they continued to make progress on the massive Station fire.

The fire effort consisted of air drops, controlled burns and fire-line digs in rugged mountains on the western flank above Sunland-Tujunga and the eastern flank above Pasadena, Sierra Madre and Monrovia.

The biggest battle was occurring to the west, where firefighters were trying to save more than a dozen homes from a three-mile front in Pacoima Canyon, just north of Little Tujunga Canyon, with an elaborate controlled-burn strategy.

 We’re using flare guns to put fire on top of the hill crest," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy. "Then we shoot flares mid-slope and allow those flares to burn themselves out. After that, crews at the bottom of the hill use drip torches to burn off brush behind threatened homes.”

On the east, the fire was burning along a 10-mile front, advancing slowly across remote and inaccessible forested wilderness about 10 miles west of Crystal Lake and California Highway 39. There, ground crews were attempting to cut breaks along ridge lines overlooking steep canyons at the same time that the fire was being assaulted with continual aerial drops.

Judy said that Santa Anita Canyon and the nearby Chantry Flat picnic area were safe as of this afternoon. And it's believed that the Stony Ridge Observatory was still standing.

A large map of the fire at the command center showed black containment lines around the blaze's northern, and southwestern boundaries, and parts of the western and eastern borders.

But large swaths remained open on the eastern and southeastern edges in the San Gabriel Wilderness and on the west near Mendenhall Peak. The area of Mt. Wilson, home to an observatory and communications towers that serve about 50 radio and television stations, appeared to be holding.

"We believe the results will be positive in the Mt. Wilson area," said Incident Commander Mike Dietrich. "Overall, crews have made excellent progress the last couple of days and we're beginning to reap those benefits."

The fire is now 38% contained and has burned more than 144,000 acres.

Meanwhile, officials are trying to figure out what caused what has grown into the largest fire in L.A. County history.

Investigators hunched under a scorched, 20-foot oak tree off Angeles Crest Highway on Wednesday afternoon, using wire mesh sifters to search through the ash in an attempt to determine whether the Station fire was deliberately set.

Near Mile Marker 29, authorities were treating the fire's suspected ignition site as a crime scene. Yellow tape cordoned off the area and authorities blocked the highway, turning away even Caltrans workers and earthmovers. Members of the bomb squad also arrived at the scene but officials declined to say what their role was in the probe.

"We believe it is the point of origin," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mike McCormick. "They are doing a finely detailed, serious, serious search and investigation. We lost two firefighters in this."

At a news conference Wednesday evening at the Station fire command center, fire officials were circumspect, saying only that they had not determined the cause of the blaze. They said, however, that they were not aware of any lightning in the area, eliminating one possible explanation.

By Wednesday night, the fire had claimed 64 homes, three commercial buildings and 49 outbuildings, and had cost more than $27 million to fight.

Despite hard slogging on the fire lines, firefighters claimed some victories Wednesday. The vast majority of evacuated homeowners, including those in Acton, Sunland-Tujunga, La Crescenta and La Cañada Flintridge, have been allowed to return home.

The threat to the historic observatory and crucial TV and radio transmission towers atop Mt. Wilson had also lessened after intense brush-clearing and back-burning efforts.

Two blazes that had threatened Oak Glen and Yucaipa in San Bernardino County were also closer to reaching full containment.

In La Cañada Flintridge, where residents had settled back in, the sign in the front yard of one Ocean View Boulevard home said it all: "Thank you for saving Paradise Valley."

At one end of the street, Lillian Guarino's daughter and two granddaughters washed the soot off the backyard patio furniture. Guarino, 89, said she wanted everything clean before she brought her two dogs, cat and cockatiel back home.

The longtime resident had survived another large fire that swept through the area in the 1970s.

"Yeah, we were very fortunate," she said. "This is the second fire we've had to go through. And hopefully this is the last one."

Skeet McAuley ignored the evacuation order to protect his Paradise Valley home and witnessed firsthand the firefighters' bravery.

When he awoke early Sunday morning, he thought it was daytime because so much light was shining into his room. Then he realized it was fire from the slope right behind his house. When he peered outside he spotted the firefighters' silhouettes, not 50 feet from his backyard fence.

"The firemen are my heroes," McAuley said. "They saved me, they saved my house."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the fire area Wednesday and dished out both praise and ample helpings of hot cereal.

"I hope it really makes you strong," he told one fireman.

For all the successes, officials were quick to point out that the fire remained out of control on its eastern flank. Because of smoky conditions, officials could not fly fixed-wing aircraft into the southeastern area of the fire, relying instead on helicopters and ground crews to save portions of Santa Anita Canyon, Chantry Flats, Devil's Canyon, Sturtevant's Camp and other areas.

—Ari B. Bloomekatz and Louis Sahagun at Hansen Dam and Ann M. Simmons in Santa Anita Canyon

Photo: Fire retardant is dropped on the Station fire along Little Tujunga Road.

Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times


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Photos: Wildfires | High-res | Mapped Interactive map: The Station fire

Firefighters wage 5-day battle to save Mt. Wilson Observatory

Crews probe point of origin as Station fire marches east

Gold Canyon residents who refused to evacuate survive Station fire

Twitter: Follow @latimescitydesk | @latimesfires

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