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More progress in Station fire, but canyons still under threat

September 3, 2009 |  7:04 am

Stonyvale Firefighters made progress overnight on the Station fire, but the massive blaze continued to push to the east and west.

The fire is now 38% contained and has burned more than 144,000 acres. It was moving southeast to the mountains high above Pasadena, Sierra Madre and Monrovia, and hand crews battled rugged terrain as they tried to protect well-known campgrounds, trails, recreation areas and the Stony Ridge Observatory. The western leg pushed toward Pacoima Canyon, prompting the evacuation of 11 homes.

(An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that 15 to 20 homes were evacuated.)

Last night, a firefighter on the front lines suffered a fractured femur.

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

Fire investigators hunched under a scorched, 20-foot-tall 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 wildfire'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 earth movers. 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 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 areas of 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 frontyard 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 shone 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 Carla Rivera

Photo: A man who identified himself only as Adi is overcome with emotion as he surveys the charred ruins of his home in the 2400 block of Stonyvale Road in Tujunga.
Credit: Luis  Sinco / 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

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