Two Firefighters Killed As Massive California Blaze Threatens 12,000 Homes

August 31, 2009 - 4:47 AM
The blaze was only about 5 percent contained late Sunday and had scorched 71 square miles in the Angeles National Forest.
California wildfires

A firefighter watches a backfire burn in Acton, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Los Angeles (AP) - Firefighters tried to hold back a massive wildfire from consuming thousands of homes and an essential communications center in Los Angeles County as they mourned two of their own who were killed when their vehicle was overrun by fast-moving flames and rolled down a mountain side.
 
About 12,000 homes, as well as crucial communications and astronomy centers atop Mount Wilson, were threatened the fire. On the blaze's northwestern front, two firefighters were killed Sunday 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," county Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant said through tears at a Sunday press conference.
 
Fire Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale, were killed in the crash, the department said in a statement. Authorities did not give a cause for the crash.
 
Hall was a 26-year veteran, and Quinones had been a county firefighter for eight years.
 
"Our hearts are heavy as we are tragically reminded of the sacrifices our firefighters and their families make daily to keep us safe," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
 
The blaze was only about 5 percent contained late Sunday and had scorched 71 square miles in the Angeles National Forest. Mandatory evacuations were in effect for neighborhoods in Glendale, Pasadena and other smoke-choked cities and towns north of Los Angeles. At least 18 homes were destroyed in the fire and firefighters expected to find many more, authorities said.
 
"Our neighbors sent us photos of all the other houses that are lost," said Beth Halaas, who lost her house in Big Tujunga Canyon, one of the many communities under mandatory evacuation. "We've heard as many as 30 houses burned."
 
On Mount Wilson, crews cleared brush and sprayed retardant in an attempt to ward off flames approaching the transmitters of more than 20 television stations, many radio stations and cell phone providers, said U.S. Forest Service Capt. Mike Dietrich.
 
Television stations said if the antennas burn broadcast signals would be affected but satellite and cable transmissions would not be.
 
Two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs are housed in the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. The complex of buildings is both a historic landmark and a thriving modern center for astronomy.
 
The fire has been growing steadily, doubling in size on Sunday. Dietrich said it was possible it would double in size yet again over the next few days.
 
A slight dip in temperatures was expected Monday, but temperatures in the 90s and low humidity would remain the norm.
 
The fire was the largest of many burning up and down California, including a blaze northeast of Sacramento that destroyed 60 structures, many of them homes in the town of Auburn. The fire had wiped out an entire cul-de-sac, leaving only smoldering ruins, a handful of chimneys and burnt cars.
 
Rick Lund, whose house is nearby but escaped the fire, stood at the end of the cul-de-sac of about 10 homes, watching firefighters attend to what once were the homes of friends and neighbors.
 
"It's right there," he said, pointing to a house of his 11-year-old daughter's close friend. "Or it was."
 
The fire had blackened 275 acres amid high winds and was 50 percent contained Sunday night, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant. The governor declared a state of emergency in the Sierra foothills area because of the fire, which began Sunday afternoon.
 
About 30 people waited anxiously at an evacuation center in the Rock Creek Elementary School, including Pam and Stephen Incerty.
 
"If there's nothing there when we get back, we won't rebuild," Stephen Incerty said of their home on five tree-covered acres of rolling hills. "There'd be no trees, just dirt."
 
In Mariposa County, a nearly 7-square-mile fire burned in Yosemite National Park and forced the evacuation of about 50 homes. The blaze was 50 percent contained Sunday, said park spokeswoman Vickie Mates. Two people suffered minor injuries, she said.
 
Hot, dry and windy conditions also helped fan a month-long wildfire in rural Utah, where residents in the town of New Harmony were told to leave their homes as the blaze flared up over the weekend. The lightning-sparked fire has already destroyed three houses and blackened more than 12 square miles in the Pine Valley Wilderness area.

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Williams reported from Auburn, Calif. Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.