Weather shift may slow gains against L.A. wildfire

LOS ANGELES Wed Sep 2, 2009 2:27pm EDT

1 of 34. A general view of the Hidden Springs Cafe in ruins after a wildfire along Angeles Forest Highway at Angeles National Forest in California September 1, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Gene Blevins

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After a day of major gains aided by a change in weather, firefighters battling a ferocious wildfire roaring through mountains near Los Angeles confronted a return of lower humidity on Wednesday that was likely to spur the blaze and slow their progress.

The chief fire commander also revealed that some kind of human activity was "presumed to be" the cause of a blaze that has destroyed 62 homes, killed two firefighters and cost the cash-strapped state $14 million so far.

The so-called Station Fire, burning just 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, is only 22 percent contained and is poised to become one of the 10 largest wildfires in California history.

The summit of historic Mount Wilson, home to an historically important observatory and a key telecommunications and broadcasting hub for the region, appeared to have escaped the worst of a firestorm.

Still, with air-moisture levels falling back to extremely low levels after a day of clouds and higher-than-normal humidity, fire commander Mike Dietrich said the situation "could turn around in a flash."

Dietrich said whether the fire was started accidentally or intentionally remains under investigation.

As of Wednesday morning, the fire had charred 140,000 acres, an area roughly the size of Chicago. Two firefighters lost their lives on Sunday, at least three civilians have been injured and thousands remain under evacuation orders.

'MONEY AVAILABLE FOR FIRES'

The Station Fire, rampaging out of control since last Wednesday, is by far the largest and most dangerous of several wildland blazes burning throughout California.

And with the traditional fire season just starting, the cash-strapped state's firefighting budget already is about half-depleted.

But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, paying his second visit to the fire's command post this week, insisted that the state possessed adequate resources to address fire threats.

He cited a newly created $500 million firefighting reserve created from money taken from other programs in a series of controversial line-item budget cuts he imposed recently.

"Even though we have a budget crunch and a financial crisis ... we always have the money available to fight fires," he said at a news conference after he took time to serve breakfast to firefighters and get a briefing from commanders.

U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, whose district includes areas hit by the fire, said 75 percent of state and local firefighting costs this year would be reimbursed by a federal emergency grant that already has been approved.

More than 4,000 firefighting personnel, many of them from as far away as Alaska and Montana, have been assembled to battle the Station Fire.

While fire crews, backed by bulldozers and an aerial assault from planes and helicopters dropping water and fire retardant, managed to carve containment lines around 22 percent of the massive blaze by Tuesday, full containment is not expected before the middle of September.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)

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