Los Angeles wildfire gets first break from weather

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Some 3,600 firefighters battling a week-old wildfire raging in the mountains near Los Angeles got their first big break on Tuesday from higher humidity that helped them push towering flames away from threatened homes.

More than 121,000 acres -- an area nearly the size of Chicago -- have burned in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forest above the heavily populated foothills 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. About 6,300 homes remained under evacuation orders. Dozens of dwellings have been destroyed.

So far, the cost to battle the so-called Station Fire has risen to nearly $14 million, a worrisome figure for a state struggling with a ballooning deficit due to the poor economy. Two firefighters lost their lives on Sunday.

A flare-up along the fire’s southwestern flank posed a renewed danger to the communities of Sunland and Tujunga, just inside Los Angeles city limits. Fire commanders said it would probably take another two weeks to fully contain the blaze.

But the fire’s overall growth has slowed and fire commander Mike Dietrich said on Tuesday he was “a lot more optimistic.”

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“We are still at 5 percent containment. However, with firefighting activity that occurred last night and the last several days, I expect that will increase substantially today,” Dietrich said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mehle, who is assigned to the fire, said 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.


He said there may be a slight benefit, too, from extra moisture spun off from Hurricane Jimena, a Category 4 storm that drenched the tip of the Baja Peninsula on Tuesday.

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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.

Fifty-three structures have been lost out of the 12,000 at risk in the area. Mount Wilson, a hub of broadcasting towers and telecommunications, as well as home to an historic observatory, was still very much threatened, Dietrich said.

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But he said fire intensity around the peak had eased, and fire crews were sent back to the site around dawn on Tuesday, days after they were withdrawn for fear of being engulfed.

Two firefighters were killed on Sunday when their position was overrun by flames and their vehicle plunged 800 feet 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 on Tuesday, though firefighters were able to conduct controlled burns overnight to push flames back into the forest.

More than 3,600 firefighters battled the blaze with help from water- and retardant-dropping aircraft. Despite progress in controlling the fire, Dietrich said the crews “are fighting for every foot.”

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.

Additional reporting by Mary Milliken, editing by Dan Whitcomb and Todd Eastham