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September 2, 2009

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LA blaze could rage for weeks

A RELENTLESS wildfire near Los Angeles raged yesterday with 53 homes up in smoke, thousands more threatened and new rounds of evacuations as towering flames crackled close to foothill neighborhoods in the path of the blaze.

Flames plowed through half-century-old thickets of tinder-dry brush, bush and trees just 24 kilometers north of downtown Los Angeles. Firefighters awaited daybreak to learn the latest extent of the six-day-old fire, which is now expected to burn for weeks.

The size of the fire in the Angeles National Forest grew to more than 190 square miles overnight, US Forest Service Commander Mike Dietrich said.

It was spreading in all directions early yesterday, from Sunland on the western front of the fire to the high desert ranchlands of Acton on the northeast.

Firefighters planned to set backfires to protect the Sunland area and will try to halt its northeastern spread with bulldozers to carve eight miles of firebreak in the Acton area.

Firefighters were keeping a close eye on the weather. Hurricane Jimena roared toward Baja California but was not forecast to be much of a factor in firefighting efforts because it is expected to dissipate by the time it hits Southern California.

The one factor that's helped firefighters this week has been the lack of wind to drive the flames. Kaplan says temperatures will begin slowly cooling later in the week.

The blaze threatened some 12,000 homes but had already done its worst to the suburban Tujunga Canyon neighborhood, where residents returned to their wrecked residences.

Fire department spokesman Paul Lowenthal said yesterday that the blaze is expected to be fully surrounded by September 15. Only 5 percent of the fire, the largest of several California wildfires, was contained so far.

Two firefighters - Captain Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale - were killed when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road on Sunday. Quinones' wife is expecting a child soon, and Hall is survived by a wife and two adult children.

The 53 homes destroyed included some forest cabins, said US Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross. He did not know how many were full-time residences.

Fire crews set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, home to at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and mobile phone antennas, and the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. It also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs in its role as both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern center for astronomy.


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