Huge L.A. fire threatens more than 10,000 homes

California firefighters battle a terrible fire season caused by weeks of hot and dry weather.

Gene Blevins/ Reuters
A wall of flame approaches a structure at the Station Fire in the Acton, California area north of Los Angeles on Sunday.

With more than 12,500 homes threatened and 6,600 people under evacuation orders, the wildfires now raging east of downtown Los Angeles are threatening to make 2009 a grim fire season for California.

Weeks of hot, dry conditions have been exacerbated by the fact that brush and chapparal here has not burned off for 40 to 50 years, compounding the usual, yearly threat. There are now eight fires burning through southern California, and the fire near LA has taken the lives of two firefighters and reportedly critically burned three people.

"This is a very difficult time for L.A. County Fire Department and the men and women that serve day in and day out," said L.A. County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant at a press conference Monday.

More than 42,500 acres of chaparral and forest between the skyscrapers and pine-topped ridges toward Mojave desert have been scorched despite the efforts of 2,000 firefighters trying to contain the flames from the ground and the sky – via helicopters and super-scooper airplanes which scoop seawater from the nearby bay and then unload the water on the flames.

Eighteen residences have been destroyed, mostly in the Big Tujunga Canyon area as the fire doubled in size over Sunday night (to 85,760 acres) and was only five percent contained by Monday morning. Because of erratic wind and steep canyons, firefighters say their dilemma is figuring how to best deploy resources.

Besides multimillion-dollar homes, the area contains Mount Wilson Observatory as well as the region's TV and FM radio transmitters. Losing those transmitters could disrupt cell phone service, disrupt TV and radio programming, emergency and law enforcement communications.

The effect of budget cuts

The region's recent drought is a major factor in the fires and spotlights the contribution of long-term climate change across the West – chiefly hotter days on average and longer fire seasons. The trend toward super hot fires has also been driven by a century-long policy of the US Forest Service to stop wildfires as quickly as possible. The practice halted the natural eradication of underbrush, which unwittingly increased the primary fuel for megafires.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a year-round fire and emergency response department, has also been challenged by state budget deficits. When weather patterns in an area of the state become warm and dry, emergency response dispatch levels are typically increased, facilities are staffed 24 hours a day, and additional firefighters are hired. But across the board budget cuts this year put the kabosh on firefighters' wish lists – from equipment to staffing.

Supporting firefighters

The long fire season has prompted residents to go out of their way to bolster the spirits of the thousands of firefighters who must be ready at a moment's notice over long stretches of time.

"We are trying to spend more time letting the firefighters know how much we appreciate them," says La Canada resident Kathy Hernandez. Her daughter painted "Thank you Firefighters" on the back window of the family car using special glass paint distributed by a task force which is also collecting a fund for firefighters. Ms. Hernandez says there is also a "yellow ribbon brigade" out putting up ribbons around trees to let firefighters know they are appreciated.

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