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September 1, 2009

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California fire doubles in size, threatens historic observatory

A HUGE Los Angeles-area fire nearly doubled in size overnight, threatening 12,000 homes yesterday in a 32-kilometer-long front of flame and smoke and surging toward a mountaintop broadcasting complex.

At least 6,600 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders and more than 2,500 firefighters were battling the flames. On the blaze's northwestern front, two firefighters were killed on Sunday when they drove off the side of a road on Mount Gleason near the city of Acton.

The fire that burned at least 18 homes was moving north, south and east through the rugged foothills northeast of Los Angeles. Despite the lack of wind, it surged through steep granite canyons by feeding on brush that had not burned for 40 years to a century, fire officials said.

"It's burning everywhere," United States Forest Service spokeswoman Dianne Cahir said. "When it gets into canyons that haven't burned in numerous years, it takes off."

The fire had burned 350 square kilometers of brush and trees by early yesterday.

The dead firefighters were Captain Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and firefighter specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale. "Our hearts are heavy as we are tragically reminded of the sacrifices our firefighters and their families make daily to keep us safe," California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

Communications and astronomy centers atop Mount Wilson were threatened by fire just 800 meters away.

Fire crews planned to set more backfires and planes dropped fire retardant around the mountaintop complex, which holds transmitters for more than 20 television stations, many radio stations and cell phone providers.

Two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs are housed in the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. The complex is both a historic landmark and a thriving modern center for astronomy.

The sheer length of the fire meant that it threatened homes ranging from scattered ranches to multimillion-dollar estates in luxury enclaves.

Mandatory evacuations were in effect for Glendale, Pasadena and other towns north of Los Angeles. The fire was the largest of many burning up and down California.


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