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Fire crews battling to save hundreds of homes as wildfires rage in Southern California

August 28, 2009 | 12:27 am

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Fire crews were battling to save hundreds of homes that were threatened by two wildfires burning in dry, explosive brush near La Cañada Flintridge and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

In Palos Verdes, 2,000 to 3,000 people had been evacuated, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said.

The two wildfires were the most active of four blazes raging in Los Angeles and Riverside counties.

In the Station fire in the Angeles National Forest, firefighters were cutting breaks above La Cañada Flintridge in an effort to stop flames before they reached hundreds of homes in neighborhoods near Angeles Crest Highway, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Flames were about three-quarters of a mile from residential neighborhoods, the Forest Service said. About 500 homes were under a mandatory evacuation order in an area that included Vista del Valle Road east of La Crescenta Boulevard.

Shortly before midnight, another neighborhood was evacuated along Starlight Crest Drive near the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, authorities said.

An evacuation center, which earlier had been designated at Crescenta Valley High School, was moved to La Cañada High School, the Forest Service said.

The fire had consumed more than 500 acres as several hundred firefighters from across the state struggled to bring it under control.

In Palos Verdes, meanwhile, several neighborhoods were evacuated as flames raced up a steep canyon area and destroyed at least one structure, officials said.

"It's still pretty active," Capt. Mike Brown said of the blaze, which broke out around 8 p.m. More than 350 firefighters were on the scene by midnight.

He said officials had not determined how many structures had burned. An evacuation center was set up at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, authorities said. A center has also been set up for animals at Ernie J. Howlett Park on Hawthorne Boulevard.

Three county Fire Department helicopters, aided by another copter from the Los Angeles Fire Department, were making dangerous nighttime water drops. The two agencies are among a few whose pilots operate at night.

Fire engines, meanwhile were protecting homes, and hand crews were cutting breaks along the fire's flank. No injuries were reported.

In Riverside County, the fire near Hemet had burned 600 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest but did not appear to be threatening homes, authorities said.

Fire crews were making headway against the fourth fire, called the Morris fire because it began in the area of Morris Dam north of Azusa and Glendora.

The Morris fire, which started Tuesday, had consumed 1,700 acres and was 45% contained by Thursday evening.

In the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Red Cross opened up an evacuation center in the gym of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School. A handful of residents streamed in shortly before midnight, chatting in the parking lot and crowding around a television set playing the local news.

"I'm sick," said Mary Lopes, who has lived in the Del Cerro neighborhood for 21 years. Her husband is out of town, and she evacuated when sheriff's deputies came through her neighborhood around 9:30 p.m. and urged residents to leave on their loudspeakers. "It was scary."

She packed her hard drive, family pictures, laptop and a computer.

She has seen the neighborhood survive many fires, but is especially worried about this one. "It just feels like it could come," she said. "It's more frightening."

Olga and Bob Jones, who have lived in the same neighborhood for 29 years, evacuated with their three dogs. A glowing red cloud of smoke and flames rose over the area as they left their home.

"I think it's going to be OK," Olga Jones said. "The firefighters are doing their job. They're just wonderful."

The dogs seemed undisturbed by the chaos Thursday night. "They're clueless," said Bob Jones.

-- Robert J. Lopez and Seema Mehta

Photo: Firefighters battle the Station fire. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times