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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hot News: Calif. residents return to rubble as fires spread


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LOS ANGELES – Bert Voorhees and his son fetched several cases of wine from the brackish water of their backyard swimming pool, about all he salvaged from his home in deadly fires that have swept Southern California.

"You're going to be living in a lunar landscape for at least a couple of years, and these trees might not come back," said Voorhees, 53. "Are enough of our neighbors going to rebuild?"

Residents began to return to the ashes of their homes on Monday and ponder what's next even as the blazes fanned out, destroying 53 homes and threatening 12,000 others. Lack of wind has kept the flames from driving into the hearts of the dense suburbs northeast of Los Angeles.

"This is a very angry fire that we're fighting right now," U.S. Forest Service Cmdr. Mike Dietrich said Monday night. "I'm not overly optimistic but yet at the same time, our firefighters are going to be taking every action to keep this fire from burning more destruction."

Beth Halaas, who lives next door to Voorhees, knew her creekside home in Big Tujunga Canyon was gone when she saw her favorite Norwegian dishware on television news, but she was desperate to see for herself and cajoled fire officials to escort her through barricaded roads Monday.

"It's just stuff," she murmured, as her 5-year-old son Robert kicked at a deflated soccer ball in his sandbox. She raked ceramic cups from the ashes.

T.J. Lynch and his wife, Maggie, left for an evacuation center late Monday after the eerie orange glow on the horizon turned into flames cresting the hill near their Tujunga home.

"It's pretty surreal, pretty humbling, how your life is represented in these objects that you collect and then you have to whittle them down," he said, describing the difficulty of choosing what to bring with them.

He said his wife would miss the 1965 Mustang that she has owned since she was a teenager. He would miss the antiques that decorate their home.

"It's a beautiful place — is? Was? I don't know anymore," he said of their home.

The fire has killed two firefighters — Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale — and charred 164 square miles of brush.

The 53 homes destroyed included some forest cabins, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross. He did not know how many were full-time residences.

Fire crews set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, home to at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and cell phone antennas, and the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. It also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs in its role as both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern center for astronomy.

If the flames hit the mountain, cell phone service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted, but the extent was unclear.

The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills was the biggest but not most destructive of California's wildfires. Northeast of Sacramento, a wind-driven fire destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn.

The 275-acre blaze wiped out an entire cul-de-sac, leaving only smoldering ruins, a handful of chimneys and burned cars.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday toured the Auburn area, where only charred remnants of some homes remained. At some houses, the only things left on the foundation are metal cabinets and washers and dryers.

East of Los Angeles, a 1,000-acre fire threatened 2,000 homes and forced the evacuation of a scenic community of apple orchards in an oak-studded area of San Bernardino County. Brush in the area had not burned for a century, fire officials said. Flames burning like huge candles erupted between rocky slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains and the neat farmhouses below. A few miles away, a 300-acre wildfire that erupted on the edge of Yucaipa forced the evacuation of 200 homes.

With highs topping 100 degrees in some areas and humidity remaining low, the central and Southern California mountains were under a weekend warning of extreme fire conditions, the National Weather Service said.

Associated Press Writers John Antczak, Daisy Nguyen and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles and Samantha Young in Auburn contributed to this report.

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