- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) | Two firefighters were killed Sunday when their vehicle rolled down a mountain side amid the intense flames of a wildfire that threatened 12,000 suburban homes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged those in the fire’s path to get out as the blazes rained ash on cars as far away as downtown Los Angeles, spreading in all directions in dry conditions.

Firefighters fixed their attention on the blaze’s fast-moving eastern side where flames lapped at the foot of the vital communications and astronomy center of Mounty Wilson, and on the northwestern front, where the two firefighters were killed on Mount Gleason near the city of Acton.

“We ask for your understanding, for your patience as we move through this difficult time, and please, prayers for the families of our two brothers that we lost,” Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant said through tears at a Sunday night press conference.

Bryant said the men’s families have been notified. He did not release their identities or give a cause for the crash.

The blaze was only about 5 percent contained and had scorched 66 square miles in the Angeles National Forest. Mandatory evacuations were in effect for neighborhoods in Glendale, Pasadena and other cities and towns north of Los Angeles. Officials said air quality in parts of the foothills bordered on hazardous.

The fire, which broke out Wednesday afternoon, was the largest of many burning around California, including a new blaze in Placer County northeast of Sacramento that destroyed several homes and businesses.

The Southern California fire was expected during the night Sunday to reach the top of Mount Wilson, where 22 television stations, many radio stations and cell phone providers have their transmitters, said U.S. Forest Service Capt. Mike Dietrich.

Television stations said if the antennas burn broadcast signals will be affected but satellite and cable transmissions will not be.

At least 18 structures, some of them homes, were destroyed in the fire and firefighters expected to find many more, Dietrich said.

Residents of the small town of Acton were ordered to evacuate as the four-day-old blaze headed into the Antelope Valley. The fire spread in all directions, leaving three people burned, destroying at least three homes and forcing thousands to flee.

“The leading edge, the one they’re really focused on, is that northern edge. It’s moving pretty fast up in that direction,” said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Randi Jorgenson. “But the fire’s growing in all directions. All fronts are going to be areas of concern today.”

For the third straight day, humidity was very low and temperatures were expected in the high 90s. About 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze.

Mandatory evacuations were in effect for neighborhoods in Acton, Altadena, Glendale, Pasadena, La Crescenta and Big Tujunga Canyon.

More than 55 square miles of the western edge of the Angeles National Forest was scorched. The blaze was only 5 percent contained. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

At a news conference at the fire command post, Mr. Schwarzenegger praised firefighters for successfully protecting subdivisions in the foothills. The governor urged residents to get out when told to evacuate.

“There were people that did not listen, and there were three people that got burned and got critically injured because they did not listen,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said.

The injuries occurred Saturday in the evacuation areas - two in the Big Tujunga Canyon area and one off State Highway 2 near Mount Wilson, Ms. Jorgenson said. They were airlifted to local hospitals. Ms. Jorgenson had no further details on their injuries.

The flames moved swiftly along the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains despite mild winds blowing predominantly in the other direction. The fire traveled six to eight miles overnight and burned as actively during the night as it does during the day, according to Capt. Mike Dietrich, the incident commander for the Forest Service. Capt. Dietrich said he had never seen a fire grow so quickly without powerful Santa Ana winds to push it.

The fire line extended about 19 miles east to west.

At least three homes deep in the Angeles National Forest were confirmed as destroyed, but firefighters were likely to find others, Capt. Dietrich said.

Rob Driscoll and his wife, Beth Halaas, said they lost their house in Big Tujunga Canyon, where fire officials said homes were lost or damaged. By Sunday morning, they were desperate for more information and came to the command post to get answers.

“Our neighbors sent us photos of all the other houses that are lost,” Mrs. Halaas said, her voice breaking as her young son nestled his sunburned face in her arms. “We’ve heard as many as 30 houses burned.”

Fire officials assured them that their damage-assessment teams were working hard to survey the damage.

Mr. Driscoll said 15 of his neighbors who live on private property within the forest were still waiting for word on their homes. At least four evacuation centers were set up at schools and community centers in the area.

The fire, which broke out Wednesday afternoon, was the largest and most dangerous of several burning in Southern and central California and in Yosemite National Park.

A massive plume of smoke could be seen for miles, and bits of ash descended on cars as far away as downtown Los Angeles. The regional air-quality agency issued a smoke advisory, warning all residents who live near the wildfire to remain indoors and avoid strenuous activity.

Officials said air quality in the foothill communities around La Canada Flintridge was unhealthy, bordering on hazardous. People with heart or lung conditions, including asthma, were asked to consider leaving the area.

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