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Firefighters make stand against California fire

FIREFIGHTERS took advantage of a turn in the weather yesterday to make a stand against the enormous wildfire burning above Los Angeles, saying they now hoped to drive the flames away from historic Mount Wilson.

But while crews made their first significant headway against the fire -- gaining 22 percent containment, up from 5 percent on Monday -- officials warned that it was too early to believe that they had the upper hand.

The blaze has already blackened an area nearly the size of Chicago and destroyed at least 62 homes, but is still capable of terrible destruction, fire commander Mike Dietrich said.

"If I were in a boxing match I think we are even today," Dietrich said. "This fire still has a lot of potential and it's a very big animal out there."

The outbreak of wildfires across California was burning through cash at a rate that alarmed leaders in Sacramento, who are grappling with a still-growing budget deficit.

As of Monday, just two months into the fiscal year and before the state's traditional fire season had begun, California had already spent more than half of its annual firefighting budget.

The Station Fire alone, which had charred 127,000 acres (51,000 hectares) as of Tuesday evening, has so far cost US$14 million to fight. Two firefighters lost their lives in the fire on Sunday and dozens of buildings have been destroyed.

A flare-up along the fire's southwestern flank still threatened neighborhoods in Sunland and Tujunga, just inside Los Angeles city limits, and fire commanders said it would probably take another two weeks to fully contain the blaze.

But with 3,600 people on the fire lines, Dietrich said the overall growth of the blaze slowed for the first time yesterday and that he was a lot more optimistic.


"Substantial progress has been made," he said. "The weather has helped us. Certainly I do not believe that we have totally turned the corner. The fire has laid down but ... it could be a very angry fire again. We're going to stay with this fire until it's out."

Officials said that for the first time they were feeling confident about their ability to save structures atop Mount Wilson, a hub for broadcast towers and other telecommunications equipment, as well as home to a historic observatory.

Flames around the peak had eased, and fire crews were sent back to the site around dawn yesterday, days after they were withdrawn for fear of being engulfed.

Meteorologists say the change in weather was due mostly to wind patterns pulling in more damp air from northern Mexico and the Baja region -- a phenomenon called monsoonal moisture.

They said there may be a slight benefit, too, from extra moisture spun off from Hurricane Jimena, a storm that drenched the tip of the Baja Peninsula yesterday.

Potential downsides of the weather change were the likelihood of gusty winds and the possibility of dry lightning strikes that could ignite new blazes in dense brush that has not burned in decades. Moisture in the air was also keeping smoke from the fire closer to the ground, making it more difficult to fight with aircraft in some spots.

Two firefighters were killed on Sunday when their position was overrun by flames and their vehicle plunged 800 feet (245 metres) down an embankment. Several other firefighters suffered minor injuries trying to rescue them, authorities said.

At least three civilians have also been injured, two of them badly burned when they were trapped by advancing flames after disregarding evacuation orders.

Police continued to evacuate foothill-area homes yesterday, although firefighters were able to conduct controlled burns overnight to push flames back into the forest, and some residents were allowed to return home.

The cause of the Station Fire, the biggest of several wildfires burning throughout the state, remains under investigation. It comes at the start of the most difficult months for California wildfires, from September to November, when fierce winds increase the danger of big fires.


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