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Thousands flee path of Calif. wildfire

September 01, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A relentless Southern California wildfire raged Tuesday with 53 homes up in smoke, thousands more threatened and new rounds of evacuations as towering flames crackled close to foothill neighborhoods in the path of the blaze.

Flames plowed through half-century-old thickets of tinder-dry brush, bush and trees just 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Firefighters awaited daybreak to learn the new extent of the 6-day-old fire, which is now expected to burn for weeks.

The size of fire in the Angeles National Forest grew to more than 190 square miles overnight, U.S. Forest Service Cmdr. Mike Dietrich said.

It was spreading in all directions early Tuesday, from Sunland on the western front of the fire to the high desert ranchlands of Acton on the northeast.

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"Pretty much everywhere, right now, is the hot spot," forest spokesman Shane Rollman said.

Firefighters planned to set backfires to protect the Sunland area and will try to halt its northeastern spread with bulldozers to carve eight miles of firebreak in the Acton area, Rollman said.

Firefighters were keeping a close eye on the weather. Hurricane Jimena roared toward Baja California, but was not forecast to have much of a factor in firefighting efforts because it is expected to dissipate by the time it hits Southern California.

Meteorologist Curt Kaplan says there is a 20 percent chance of a thunderstorm in the fire area Tuesday, but that could end up being a bad thing because the storm could spawn 40-mph wind gusts. The one factor that's helped firefighters this week has been the lack of wind to drive the flames. Kaplan says temperatures will begin slowly cooling later in the week.

The blaze threatened some 12,000 homes but had already done its worst to the suburban Tujunga Canyon neighborhood, where residents returned to their wrecked homes.

Bert Voorhees and his son on Monday fetched several cases of wine from the brackish water of their backyard swimming pool, about all he salvaged from his home.

"You're going to be living in a lunar landscape for at least a couple of years, and these trees might not come back," the 53-year-old Voorhees said. "Are enough of our neighbors going to rebuild?"

About 2,000 people were chased from their homes in triple-digit heat as fire bosses said it could take weeks to contain the fire. Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal said Tuesday that the blaze is expected to be fully surrounded Sept. 15. Only 5 percent of the fire, the largest of several California wildfires, was contained so far.

Some people wouldn't leave. Authorities said five men and one woman refused several orders to evacuate a remote ranch in a canyon near Gold Creek. The Los Angeles County sheriff's office had initially said the people were trapped and could not be rescued.

"When we tried to get them out, they said they're fine, no problem, they didn't want to leave," said fire spokesman Larry Marinas.

Crews fighting the blaze also were contending with favorable fire conditions such as high temperatures topping 100 degrees and low humidity. Temperatures near the fire were expected to hit 102 degrees Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

The swath of fire extends from the densely populated foothill communities of Altadena, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Tujunga and Sunland in the south to Acton.

Beth Halaas knew her creekside home in Big Tujunga Canyon was gone when she saw her favorite Norwegian dishware on television news. But she was desperate to see for herself and cajoled fire officials to escort her through barricaded roads.

"It's just stuff," she murmured, as her 5-year-old son Robert kicked at a deflated soccer ball in his sandbox. She raked ceramic cups from the ashes.

Two firefighters -- Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale -- were killed when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road on Sunday. Quinones' wife is expecting a child any week, and Hall has a wife and two adult children.

The 53 homes destroyed included some forest cabins, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross. He did not know how many were full-time residences.

Fire crews set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, home to at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and cell phone antennas, and the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. It also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs in its role as both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern center for astronomy.

If the flames hit the mountain, some cell phone service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted.

T.J. Lynch and his wife, Maggie, were among residents who evacuated late Monday after the eerie orange glow on the horizon turned into flames cresting the hill near their Tujunga home.

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