- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

LOS ANGELES | 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 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.

Fire crews battling the blaze in the Angeles National Forest tried desperately to beat back the flames and hoped for weather conditions to ease. The fire was the largest of at least eight burning across California.

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. The flames scorched 164 square miles of brush and threatened more than 12,000 homes, but the lack of wind kept them from driving explosively into the hearts of the dense suburbs northeast of Los Angeles.

“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 five people who refused to evacuate threatened areas reported they were trapped at a ranch near Gold Creek, Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said. A sheriff’s helicopter was unable to reach them immediately because of intense fire activity, Mr. Whitmore said, but would try after the flames passed.

“What this says is, ‘Listen, listen, listen,’ ” Mr. 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.”

Over the weekend, three people who refused to evacuate were severely burned when they were overrun by flames, including a couple who had sought refuge in a hot tub, authorities said.

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.

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 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 eventually, 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 has 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.

Workers on Monday continued to evacuate the Wildlife Waystation, home to 400 exotic animals - including lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions, wolves, bears and ostriches - as a gigantic wildfire advanced in the wilderness north of Los Angeles.

The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills is the biggest but not most destructive of California’s wildfires. Northeast of Sacramento, a fire destroyed 60 structures, including homes in Auburn. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the area Monday morning.

East of Los Angeles, a 1,000-acre fire threatened 2,000 homes in San Bernardino County. Brush in the area had not burned for a century, fire officials said.

Samantha Young, Tracie Cone, Raquel Maria Dillon and Solvej Schou contributed to this report.

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