September 2, 2009 / 3:47 PM / 10 years ago

Weather shift may slow gains against L.A. wildfire

* Burned area rises to 140,000 acres — size of Chicago

* Governor Schwarzenegger returns to fire zone

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES, Sept 2 (Reuters) - After a day of major gains aided by a change in the weather, firefighters battling the enormous wildfire roaring through mountains near Los Angeles braced on Wednesday for a return of lower humidity that could spur the blaze and slow their progress.

Evacuation orders were lifted late on Tuesday for two areas at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains — La Canada and La Crescenta — that had been menaced by flames since the fire erupted a week earlier in the Angeles National Forest.

The peak of historic Mount Wilson, home to a historically important observatory and a key telecommunications and broadcasting hub for the region, appeared to have escaped the worst of a firestorm officials had feared would engulf it.

But several foothill communities were still threatened, and evacuation orders remained in effect for thousands of homes.

As of Wednesday morning, the fire had charred 140,000 acres (56,000 hectares), an area roughly the size of Chicago, and destroyed at least 62 homes.

Two firefighters lost their lives on Sunday and at least three civilians have been injured.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who toured the fire zone on Sunday, has returned for a personal update on the situation.

The so-called Station Fire is the biggest of several wildfires across California that are burning up cash at a rate that alarmed leaders in Sacramento, who are grappling with a still-growing state budget deficit.

As of Monday, just two months into the fiscal year and before the state’s usual fire season had begun, California had already spent over half of its annual firefighting budget. Station Fire alone has cost $14 million to fight so far.

Firefighters got an assist from Mother Nature on Tuesday, Day 7 of the blaze, in the form of higher humidity, some clouds and slightly cooler temperatures which allowed them to make their first significant headway against the stubborn flames. But that break may be short-lived.

“Now we’re going to have drier conditions, so fire activity is going to pick up quite a bit,” said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mark Whaling.

The cause of the wildfire remains under investigation. (Editing by Mary Milliken and Todd Eastham)

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