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Fire pushes southeast above Sierra Madre, Monrovia; cabins, hiking trails and observatory are in peril [Updated]

September 2, 2009 |  3:12 pm

The Station fire was pushing to the southeast today in the mountains high above Sierra Madre and Monrovia as firefighters tried to save portions of Santa Anita Canyon, Chantry Flats, Devil's Canyon, Sturtevant's Camp and other areas.

There was growing concern about whether cabins, hiking trails and other landmarks such as the Stony Ridge Observatory in the path of the flames would survive.

"Major damage to structures in the area has been reported. The condition of Stony Ridge Observatory is unknown at this time," the observatory posted on its website. "Forest Service personnel attempted to reach Stony Ridge Observatory via Angeles Crest Highway on Tuesday, but were not successful, due to rock debris on Angeles Crest Highway."

The Long Beach Unified School District said its Camp Hi-Hill Outdoor Education Center was damaged.

Earlier today, officials considered evacuating parts of Altadena as the fire moved close. But the situation there appears to be improving. [Updated at 4 p.m.: Officials lifted evacuation orders in much of Sunland and Tujunga.]

U.S. Forest Service and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigators today cordoned off a charred hillside next to Angeles Crest Highway -- the suspected ignition point for the Station fire -- as a crime scene.

Under a 20-foot-tall oak tree that had been scorched by fire, three investigators sifted through dirt and ash near mile marker 29, about 2 1/2 miles north of La Canada Flintridge. Investigators declined to comment. Angeles Crest Highway remains closed to the public.


The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The fire was burning at the top of mountains but was not visible from foothill communities. At the top of Lake Avenue, U.S. Forest Service strike team leader James Park said "hotshot" crews are looking for places to tie in the fire, where it can be blocked between areas with no fuel, such as rock outcroppings. If the weather holds, they should be successful, he said.

Down the mountain, in and around Eaton Canyon contingency work is underway. In addition to firebreaks and bringing hose lines in, plans are being drawn for firefighting action at various points if the fire moves downhill. There are no evacuation orders in the area. Firebreaks are visible above the old Cobb Estate northeast of Lake and Alta Loma.

Overall, firefighters continued to make progress on the 140,000-acre blaze, but officials said it continues to expand.


Firemap

On the west, officials are worried about the fire encroaching on Little Tujunga Canyon. Firefighters have been having trouble getting into the area because of rugged terrain, officials said.

Firefighters have worked hard to save Mt. Wilson, home to a historic observatory as well as crucial TV and radio transmission towers. Officials said this morning that aggressive water and gel drops from aircraft helped prevent the mountain from taking a direct hit from the flames.

But Mt. Wilson is still in danger, and the fight there will continue. Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Mark Whaling said machines were brought in to crush much of the brush surrounding the peak and that more fire-resistant gel was used to protect structures.

Temperatures continued to drop slightly, aiding firefighters on a massive blaze that has killed two firefighters and destroyed 62 dwellings. But the weather conditions are still far from ideal for firefighters. Whaling said high levels of humidity helped firefighters overnight, but "there will be a more intense fire" today because of lower humidity and temperatures reaching into the 90s.

A total of 4,128 personnel are working to stop the blaze. About 12,000 structures are threatened.

Although the number of structures razed is small compared with other recent wildfires, this one has ripped an enormous hole in one of Southern California's most treasured wildlife areas, a fact that was particularly evident along Angeles Crest Highway, which remained closed to the public.

Under skies tinged coral and gray by dense smoke, acres of slope once covered with manzanita, sumac, sycamore and pine trees looked like black dunes.

Charred remains of squirrels and other rodents lay by the road.

Joe Young, 63, who has hiked the San Gabriel Mountains for 39 years, said the burned area contains many of Southern California's most popular hiking trails. "It's very sad," said Young, a member of the Sierra Club's Hundred Peaks group. "In just the burned area so far we have about 40 peaks that the club goes to regularly, if not every week." Read more about the Station fire here.

--Ari B. Bloomekatz at Hansen Dam and Roger Smith in Altadena

Fire300 Firemap295
Photos: Southland wildfires  | High-res Interactive map: The Station fire

Amid progress, concern about Station fire's southeastern edge

In Big Tujunga Canyon, fire leaves behind mourners and miracles

San Gabriel Mountains a daunting place to fight fire

L.A. County Fire Department: The latest

Twitter: Follow @latimescitydesk | @latimesfires

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