Firefighters battle to save homes in path of wildfire

ARCADIA, Calif. - Fifty-foot flames crackling through decades-old thickets of mountain bush chased residents from homes Tuesday while firefighters waged an all-out air and ground assault to halt the blaze.

About 1,000 firefighters and a fleet of water-dropping aircraft were tackling the wildfire, which had burned more than 750 acres in the steep San Gabriel Mountains by late afternoon. The fire was 40 percent contained and firefighters expected to have it fully surrounded by 6 p.m. Thursday, said Capt. Jim Wilkins, a spokesman with the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

No structures were burned, but two firefighters were struck by tumbling rocks and suffered minor injuries.

Fickle Santa Ana winds that fanned the blaze out of control Tuesday night subsided by dawn, but there were fears they might return.

''Right now the fire is a sleeping giant and we just hope the winds don't wake it up,'' said Mark Whaling, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. ''As long as it remains calm, we are confident that we will be able to stop it at the back yards.''

Homeowners clutching hoses watered down rooftops and fire trucks took up positions in driveways. There was a steady drone from four helicopters and four air tankers making water-dropping sorties over hot spots.

Fingers of fire burned into the back yards of some homes at the edge of the Angeles National Forest and huge plumes of reddish-brown smoke could be seen 20 miles to the southwest in downtown Los Angeles.

The acrid stench of smoke infiltrated downtown and elsewhere in the Los Angeles Basin, leading to telephone calls from residents fearing a fire was near. Arcadia smoke engulfing Griffith Park some 20 miles away led to a false fire report there, said Bob Collis of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

In Arcadia and Sierra Madre, four bulldozers and hand crews cleared away 30-year-old stands of brush, carving an earthen swath to starve the fire of fuel. Firefighters spread foam on vegetation above homes.

Police came knocking during the night and urged residents on Highland Vista Drive to leave. About 100 people left an estimated 260 threatened homes, grabbing pets, mementos and computers as flames bore in on the neighborhood.

''They wanted us to evacuate but we just said no. There were no fire trucks,'' Canyon Road resident Lily Sabuni said.

Neighbor Phill Consiglio didn't wait around.

''They were saying it was voluntary but we picked up a few things and left,'' Consiglio said, crediting brush clearance 70 feet back to his property line for sparing his home.

''I had a sprinkler going on the roof all night,'' resident Dan Novak said.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ken Ketman said the fire was ''doing pretty much what it pleases.'' The blaze was about 40 percent contained at one point Monday evening, but winds fanned it out of control.

''It's moving up the slopes and it's steep and dangerous,'' Ketman said.

The fire broke out at 2:45 p.m. Monday in rugged terrain near the forest's Chantry Flats campground, a few miles north of Arcadia. The cause of the fire wasn't known.


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