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Wildfire destroys homes, traps victims


LOS ANGELES (AP) - A deadly wildfire that has blackened a wide
swath of tinder-dry forest around Los Angeles took another menacing
turn Monday as five people became hopelessly trapped inside a smoky
canyon and thousands of suburban homes and a vital mountaintop
broadcasting complex grew dangerously close to being devoured by
explosive, towering flames.
The five trapped people refused to evacuate threatened areas and
reported they were stranded at a ranch near Gold Creek, Los Angeles
County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. A sheriff's
helicopter was unable to immediately reach them because of intense
fire activity, but would try after the flames passed, he said.
"What this says is, 'Listen, listen, listen,"' Whitmore said.
"Those people were told to get out two days ago, and now we are
putting our people in danger to get them out."
Fire crews battling the blaze in the Angeles National Forest
tried desperately to beat back the flames and prayed for weather
conditions to ease. The fire was the largest of at least eight
burning across California after days of triple-digit temperatures
and low humidity.
The fire scorched 164 square miles of brush and threatened more
than 12,000 homes, but the lack of wind kept them from driving
stormily into the hearts of the dense suburbs northeast of Los
Angeles.
Columns of smoke billowed high into the air before dispersing
into a gauzy white haze that burned eyes and prompted warnings of
unhealthy air throughout the Los Angeles area. Smoke could be seen
billowing around the fabled Hollywood sign.
"It's burning everywhere," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman
Dianne Cahir said. "When it gets into canyons that haven't burned
in numerous years, it takes off. If you have any insight into the
good Lord upstairs, put in a request."
The exact number of people injured or threatened by the fire was
still not clear. Over the weekend, three people who refused to
evacuate were burned when they were overrun by flames, including a
couple who had sought refuge in a hot tub, authorities said.
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. The observatory also houses two giant telescopes and
several multimillion-dollar university programs. It is both a
landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern center
for astronomy.
The fire about a half-mile away was expected to reach the
mountaintop sometime Monday night, said Los Angeles County fire
Capt. Mark Whaling. If the flames hit the mountain, cell phone
service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted, but the
extent was unclear.
The blaze killed two firefighters, destroyed at least 21 homes
and forced thousands of evacuations. The firefighters died when
their truck drove off the side of a road with flames all around
them.
The victims were fire Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino
County, and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35,
of Palmdale. Hall was a 26-year veteran, and Quinones had been a
county firefighter for eight years.
Quinones' wife is expecting and due to give birth to their first
child in the next few weeks.
Hall and his wife have two boys, ages 20 and 21, and was
described as a family-oriented man who loved riding motorcycles.
They died fighting a fire that showed no signs of subsiding
Monday. People who fled returned to find their homes gone.
"It's the worst roller coaster of my life, and I hate roller
coasters," said Adi Ellad, who lost his home in Big Tujunga Canyon
over the weekend. "One second I'm crying, one second I'm guilty,
the next moment I'm angry, and then I just want to drink tequila
and forget."
Ellad left behind a family heirloom Persian rug and a photo
album he put together after his father died. "I'm going to have to
figure out a new philosophy: how to live without loving stuff," he
said.
The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills is the biggest but not
most destructive of California's wildfires. Northeast of
Sacramento, a wind-driven fire destroyed 60 structures over the
weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn.
The 275-acre blaze was 50 percent contained Monday afternoon and
full containment was expected Tuesday. It wiped out an entire
cul-de-sac, leaving only smoldering ruins, a handful of chimneys
and burned cars.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Auburn area, where only
charred remnants of homes remained on Monday. At some houses, the
only things left on the foundation are metal cabinets and washers
and dryers.
"It was embers traveling in the wind, landing on the roofs,
landing on attics, getting into that home and burning the home on
fire," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California
Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Some mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, but most residents
are still being told to stay away while crews work to restore
electricity and hose down embers.
East of Los Angeles, a 1,000-acre fire threatened 2,000 homes
and forced the evacuation of a scenic community of apple orchards
in an oak-studded area of San Bernardino County. Brush in the area
had not burned for a century, fire officials said. Flames burning
like huge candles erupted between rocky slopes of the San
Bernardino Mountains and the neat farmhouses below.
With highs topping 100 degrees in some areas and humidity
remaining low, the National Weather Service extended a weekend
warning of extreme fire conditions in the central and Southern
California mountains.
Winds were light, which prevented the flames from roaring at
furious speed into towns. In 2003, a wind-whipped blaze tore
through neighborhoods in San Diego County, killing 15 people and
destroying more than 2,400 homes. That fire burned 273,000 acres -
or 427 square miles - the largest in state history.
Overall, more than 2,500 firefighters were on the line. More
than 20 helicopters and air tankers were preparing to dump water
and retardant over the flames. Two Canadian Super Scoopers, giant
craft that can pull thousands of gallons of water from lakes and
reservoirs, were expected to join the fight later in the day.
In La Crescenta, where the San Gabriel Mountains descend steeply
into the bedroom suburb a dozen miles from downtown Los Angeles,
57-year-old Mary Wilson was experiencing her first wildfire after
nine years of living in a canyon.
Her family was evacuated twice in the past five days, she said.
"We saw the flames. My daughter got really scared," she said.
But she was philosophical: "You have to surrender to the natural
forces when you choose to live up here. It's about nature doing its
thing."
Also in La Crescenta, dispatchers overnight activated a
"reverse 911" system that sent a recorded evacuation warning to
people, but it turned out to be a mistake.
Whaling, the L.A. County fire captain, says the message applied
to only a small number of residents closest to the fire but instead
a large number got the sleep-shattering calls. He said he does not
know how many people were involved in the call.
"They pushed the wrong button," he said.
Terry Crews, an actor promoting the new movie "Gamer" on
KTLA-TV, talked about being forced to flee two days ago from his
home in Altadena, in the foothills above Pasadena. He saw 40-foot
flames, grabbed his dog and fled.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "I'm from
Michigan. I'm used to tornadoes ... but to see this thing, you feel
helpless."
"This is like 'The Ten Commandments,"' he said, referring to
the movie. "You go, 'holy God, the end of the world."'
An animal sanctuary called the Roar Foundation Shambala
Preserve, six miles east of Acton, was in the mandatory evacuation
zone, but fire officials decided removing the animals would be "a
logistical nightmare," said Chris Gallucci, vice president of
operations.
"We have 64 big cats, leopards, lions, tigers, cougars. ... The
animals are just walking around, not being affected by this at
all," Gallucci said. "But if we panic, they panic. But we are not
in panic mode yet."
---
Associated Press Writers Samantha Young in Auburn, Tracie Cone
in Fresno, and Raquel Maria Dillon and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles
contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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