Deadly bushfires menace LA observatory

  Deadly bushfires menace LA observatory

1 September 2009

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USA — A deadly bushfire roaring through mountains north of Los Angeles for a sixth day has more than doubled in size.

The burned area ballooned to 42,490 hectares and the fire continued to encroach on 1,740-metre peak Mt Wilson, a communications hub and the site of an historic observatory.

The fire as a whole was just 5 per cent contained and may not be fully contained for another eight days, officials predicted.

Fire crews were removed from the Mt Wilson summit, which is home to 50 buildings plus a world-famous array of telescopes and a critical cluster of transmission towers for US broadcasters.

“They’ve done everything they can do and it’s unsafe for them to be there when the fire hits,” Los Angeles County fire captain Mark Whaling said.

Two veteran firefighters died on Sunday when they were overrun by flames in the Angeles National Forest and rugged San Gabriel Mountains.

More than 6,000 firefighting personnel, some from as far away as Montana and Wyoming, have been assembled to battle the blaze.

Elsewhere in the forest, firefighters retreated from a wall of flames advancing on their positions, Mr Whaling said.

At least three more structures were reported lost on Monday in addition to 18 houses destroyed on Sunday, said Scott Visyak, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire threat eased in some foothill communities of suburban Los Angeles that were menaced by flames over the weekend.

But up to 300 homes on the southwest flank of the fire, just inside Los Angeles city limits, were newly threatened on Monday and ordered to be evacuated.

‘No joke’

Throughout the fire zone, residents of 4,000 dwellings were under orders to leave their homes, said Stephen Whitmore, spokesman for the Los Angeles County sheriff.

Five people who defied those orders, four men and a woman, ended up trapped in their home surrounded by flames as they awaited rescue, with sheriff’s deputies waiting to get them out “when we can”, Mr Whitmore said.

“What were they thinking?” he said. “When we tell you to leave, leave. This is not a joke.”

The first day of classes for two nearby school districts, Glendale and La Canada, were cancelled due to heavy smoke.

While the blaze more than doubled in size, fire officials said crews had managed to create buffer zones around many of the neighbourhoods that had been most at risk.

“Where the fire has burned up to the edge of communities, and firefighters have put it out, they’re obviously in much better shape,” Mr Whaling said.

“They’re not out of the woods until we get the entire area mopped up.”

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

The blaze was fuelled by dense, tinder-dry vegetation that had not burned in several decades, triple-digit temperatures and low humidity.

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