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Weather helping firefighters in Angeles National Forest

September 1, 2009 | 11:58 am

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Crews were making progress today in fighting the Station fire in the Angeles National Forest as moister weather moved into the Southland and firefighters were allowed to return to Mt. Wilson, which had been closed because of extreme fire danger.

"I’m feeling a lot more optimistic today than I did yesterday," said U.S. Forest Service Incident Cmdr. Mike Dietrich. "We made progress last night, not just due to humidity, but good darn firefighting. They're fighting for every foot."

Fire officials were still worried about areas around Acton and Agua Dulce, which were threatened by the fire front. On Monday, a DC-10 dropped 12,000 gallons of retardant along a ridge that lies between those communities and the fire in hopes of slowing down flames should they reach that line.

Four Los Angeles Fire Department strike teams are stationed in Haines Canyon above Tujunga, where fire could be seen slowly backing down a hill, said city fire spokesman David Ortiz said. The fire in that area is burning onto itself, which is a good thing, Ortiz said, but a shift in winds could put the community at risk.

"Because of the narrow streets, it makes it difficult to get a large apparatus in the area," he said. He also noted that the area is rife with vegetation and that the lots are small and close together.

Though officially the fire is still at 5% containment, Dietrich said officials will reassess that figure today and that he expected it to go up substantially.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. No additional homes were reported destroyed, but damages are estimated at $13.6 million. The containment date still stands at Sept. 15.

On Monday, Dietrich characterized the fire as "angry" and "vindictive," but today he compared it to his own children: "cranky and stubborn for no apparent reason." About 3,600 personnel remain involved in fighting the fire, and an ongoing concern is getting firefighters enough rest and water.

On Friday, one firefighter was hospitalized with renal kidney failure because of dehydration, but he is in better condition now. In order to ensure the firefighters are getting adequate rest, officials have set up a camp in the Santa Clarita area, a closer alternative to the command center at Hansen Dam, Dietrich said.

The massive blaze, which has burned more than 50 structures, killed two firefighters and caused thousands of evacuations, grew by about 15,000 acres over the last 12 hours. That's a smaller rate of growth than Sunday or Monday, but officials are still on guard. Despite the improved weather, officials said they worried about the possibility of gusty winds and dry lightning.

After a six-day heat wave, forecasters say an onshore flow will return today, dropping temperatures on the fire lines to the low 90s, with some gusty winds at mountain peaks. Humidity is also expected to increase.

The drama of families having to flee their homes -- or risking all to try to defend their property -- played out repeatedly as searing heat and a generation of accumulated hillside growth fed the fires. In the once-threatened area of Briggs Terrace, firefighters using flares set backfires from the top of the ridge gradually down toward the homes.

The burnouts neutralized the danger of the wildfire coming down, said Nathan Judy of the U.S. Forest Service.

"Everybody in that neighborhood has nothing to worry about," he said."There's no fuel to burn. We took it away." Firefighters cut a break between the homes and the burnout nearest them, but the winds were blowing upslope during the operation anyway, Judy said.

The Station fire, the largest of several in the state, was plowing through dense hillside vegetation along the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting a remarkable swath that extends from Altadena into the high desert.

Despite the fire's sprawling dimensions, stretching up to 25 miles from east to west and 18 miles from north to south, aggressive ground and aerial assaults managed to confine the blaze to largely undeveloped areas. Losses from the fire rose Monday when officials learned that more than 30 cabins, homes and other structures were destroyed in the remote Big Tujunga Canyon area.

On the fire's eastern flank, officials were still hoping a concerted effort to hack away tree limbs, cut fire breaks and lay down fire retardant would spare the Mt. Wilson Observatory and a key complex of communications towers used for over-the-air broadcasting by nearly 50 radio and television stations.

Authorities allowed firefighters today to return to Mt. Wilson to continue fighting the fire from that location. The intensity and unpredictability of the blaze, which continued shifting directions, forced fire crews to pull back from the mountaintop Monday. With the blaze burning on both sides of the only access road to the complex, firefighters could become trapped if the inferno suddenly raced up the canyon walls.

At 10 a.m., four truckloads of firefighter ground crews returned to Mt. Wilson with picks, shovels and chain saws to create fire lines. But as they drove up the 5-mile road to the complex, gusty winds began to blow and fires above and below the road picked up. Large rocks falling down the burned mountainside added to the increasingly unsafe conditions.

The fire has taken an enormous toll on the environment, a fact that was particularly evident along Angeles Crest Highway, which remained closed to public traffic this morning.

Under skies tinged corral and gray by dense smoke, mile after mile of mountain and canyon lands along both sides of the two-lane highway, Route 2, had been stripped of manzanita, sumac, sycamore and pine trees that had not previously burned in nearly half a century.

Vistas have become moonscapes of dirt, rock and ash. Every few hundred yards, the charred remains of a squirrel or rodents could be seen lying by the side of the road. Some creatures however, somehow managed to survive.

Birds including scrub jays flitted among rare patches of chaparral clinging to cliff sides. A female mule deer wandered along the highway. A rabbit sat forlornly on a plateau covered with gray ash. Many firefighters recalled crossing paths with surviving rattlesnakes.

Federal wildlife authorities said biologists and environmental rehabilitation specialists were expected to begin inspecting the damage and developing recovery strategies in the near future. Nearly every firefighter had a heartbreaking story to tell about an encounter with dead or dying wildlife.

"We came across a rabbit with a broken back, and we put it out of its misery," said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Nick Shawkey. "But the majority of animals die from superheated gases that precede the fire front. Their respiratory systems get knocked out. Essentially, they suffocate." Standing on a cliff edge and surveying the devastation, he added, "It’s sad. Really sad. But it will come back."

Although it felt cooler this morning and firefighters were hopeful, weather forecasters said warm, dry conditions are expected to prevail across the Southland today, with a slight chance of isolated showers and gusty winds developing. Moisture moving north from Mexico, unrelated to Hurricane Jimena south of Baja, may trigger a 20% chance of thunderstorms and isolated showers over the mountains and deserts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

The system also may produce lighting and winds with gusts of 30 to 35 mph, said David Sweet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Temperatures in the mountains today will range from the mid-90s to 100 in the lower elevations and the mid-80s to mid-90s in higher elevations. Inland temperatures should reach the mid-90s this afternoon; high in the 70s were expected along the beaches. A cooling trend should develop later in the week, he said.

At the Station fire command center at Hansen Dam, incident meteorologist Matt Mehle said there will be a slight warming trend today combined with moisture moving in from the southeast, providing a chance for afternoon and evening isolated dry thunderstorms, which could produce gusty, erratic winds.

The western flank of the fire should push toward Littlerock because of southwestern winds, according to the fire behavior report released this morning. On the eastern flank, the fire is expected to continue to spread "actively" as it moves beyond Mt. Wilson. Fire behavior specialists said the fire will continue to spread southwest toward subdivisions along the 210 Freeway from Altadena to Little Tujunga.

-- Corina Knoll at Hansen Dam, Ann M. Simmons in Tujunga and Ruben Vives

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Photos: Wildfires | On the fire lines Interactive map: The Station fire

Huge wildfire shows little sign of slowing down

Firefighters died in effort to escape

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Mt. Wilson webcam: The 150-Foot Solar Tower

L.A. County Fire Department: The latest

Twitter: Follow @latimescitydesk | @latimesfires

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