A deadly wildfire that has blackened a wide swath of tinder-dry forest around Los Angeles took another menacing turn Monday as five people became hopelessly trapped inside a smoky canyon and thousands of suburban homes and a vital mountaintop broadcasting complex grew dangerously close to being devoured by explosive, towering flames.
The five trapped people refused to evacuate threatened areas and reported they were stranded at a ranch near Gold Creek, Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. A sheriff's helicopter was unable to immediately reach them because of intense fire activity, but would try after the flames passed, he said.
"What this says is, 'Listen, listen, listen,"' Whitmore said. "Those people were told to get out two days ago, and now we are putting our people in danger to get them out."
Fire crews battling the blaze in the Angeles National Forest tried desperately to beat back the flames and prayed for weather conditions to ease. The fire was the largest of at least eight burning across California after days of triple-digit temperatures and low humidity.
The fire scorched 164 square miles of brush and threatened more than 12,000 homes, but the lack of wind kept them from driving stormily into the hearts of the dense suburbs northeast of Los Angeles.
Columns of smoke billowed high into the air before dispersing into a gauzy white haze that burned eyes and prompted warnings of unhealthy air throughout the Los Angeles area. Smoke could be seen billowing around the fabled Hollywood sign.
"It's burning everywhere," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Dianne Cahir said. "When it gets into canyons that haven't burned in numerous years, it takes off. If you have any insight into the good Lord upstairs, put in a request."
The exact number of people injured or threatened by the fire was still not clear. Over the weekend, three people who refused to evacuate were burned when they were overrun by flames, including a couple who had sought refuge in a hot tub, authorities said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday issued emergency declarations for the counties of Placer, Monterey, Los Angeles and Mariposa.
On the blaze's northwestern front,when their truck drove off the side of a road on Mount Gleason near the city of Acton.
The victims were fire Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale. Hall was a 26-year veteran, and Quinones had been a county firefighter for eight years.
Quinones' wife is expecting and due to give birth to their first child in the next few weeks.
Hall and his wife have two boys, ages 20 and 21, and was described as a family-oriented man who loved riding motorcycles.
"Our hearts are heavy as we are tragically reminded of the sacrifices our firefighters and their families make daily to keep us safe," Schwarzenegger said.
Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mike Brown said the three adults also suffered third-degree burns on Saturday in the Tujunga area. He said they were taken to local hospitals but he had no word on their conditions Monday.
The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported the three included a couple who sought shelter in a hot tub and a person burned in an evacuation area near Mount Wilson. Brown could not confirm those details.
With flames about a half-mile away from the communications and astronomy centers on Mount Wilson, crews planned to set more backfires and planes dropped fire retardant around the mountaintop complex
CBS News correspondent Hattie Kauffman reports the complex houses transmitters for 22 television stations along with many radio stations and cell phone providers.
Fire crews set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, home to at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and cellphone antennas, and the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. The observatory also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs. It is both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern centre for astronomy.
The fire about a half-mile away was expected to reach the mountaintop sometime Monday night, said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Whaling. If the flames hit the mountain, cellphone service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted, but the extent was unclear.
The blaze has destroyed at least 21 homes and forced thousands of evacuations. The firefighters died when their truck drove off the side of a road with flames all around them.
Hall and Quinones died fighting a fire that showed no signs of subsiding Monday. People who fled returned to find their homes gone.
"It's the worst roller coaster of my life, and I hate roller coasters," said Adi Ellad, who lost his home in Big Tujunga Canyon over the weekend. "One second I'm crying, one second I'm guilty, the next moment I'm angry, and then I just want to drink tequila and forget."
Ellad left behind a family heirloom Persian rug and a photo album he put together after his father died. "I'm going to have to figure out a new philosophy: how to live without loving stuff," he said.
The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills is 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 was 50 per cent contained Monday afternoon and full containment was expected Tuesday. It wiped out an entire cul-de-sac, leaving only smouldering ruins, a handful of chimneys and burned cars.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Auburn area, where only charred remnants of homes remained on Monday. At some houses, the only things left on the foundation are metal cabinets and washers and dryers.
"It was embers travelling in the wind, landing on the roofs, landing on attics, getting into that home and burning the home on fire," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Some mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, but most residents are still being told to stay away while crews work to restore electricity and hose down embers.
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.
With highs topping 100 degrees in some areas and humidity remaining low, the National Weather Service extended a weekend warning of extreme fire conditions in the central and Southern California mountains.
Winds were light, which prevented the flames from roaring at furious speed into towns. In 2003, a wind-whipped blaze tore through neighbourhoods in San Diego County, killing 15 people and destroying more than 2,400 homes. That fire burned 273,000 acres - or 427 square miles - the largest in state history.
Overall, more than 2,500 firefighters were on the line. More than 20 helicopters and air tankers were preparing to dump water and retardant over the flames. Two Canadian Super Scoopers, giant craft that can pull thousands of gallons of water from lakes and reservoirs, were expected to join the fight later in the day.
In La Crescenta, where the San Gabriel Mountains descend steeply into the bedroom suburb a dozen miles from downtown Los Angeles, 57-year-old Mary Wilson was experiencing her first wildfire after nine years of living in a canyon.
Her family was evacuated twice in the past five days, she said.
"We saw the flames. My daughter got really scared," she said. But she was philosophical: "You have to surrender to the natural forces when you choose to live up here. It's about nature doing its thing."
Also in La Crescenta, dispatchers overnight activated a system that sent a recorded evacuation warning to people, but it turned out to be a mistake.
Whaling, the L.A. County fire captain, says the message applied to only a small number of residents closest to the fire but instead a large number got the sleep-shattering calls. He said he does not know how many people were involved in the call.
"They pushed the wrong button," he said.
Terry Crews, an actor promoting the new movie "Gamer" on KTLA-TV, talked about being forced to flee two days ago from his home in Altadena, in the foothills above Pasadena. He saw 40-foot flames, grabbed his dog and fled.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "I'm from Michigan. I'm used to tornadoes ... but to see this thing, you feel helpless."
"This is like 'The Ten Commandments,"' he said, referring to the movie. "You go, 'holy God, the end of the world."'
An animal sanctuary called the Roar Foundation Shambala Preserve, six miles east of Acton, was in the mandatory evacuation zone, but fire officials decided removing the animals would be "a logistical nightmare," said Chris Gallucci, vice-president of operations.
"We have 64 big cats, leopards, lions, tigers, cougars. ... The animals are just walking around, not being affected by this at all," Gallucci said. "But if we panic, they panic. But we are not in panic mode yet."
In Mariposa County, a nearly 7-square-mile fire burned in Yosemite National Park and forced the evacuation of about 50 homes. The blaze was 50 percent contained Sunday, said park spokeswoman Vickie Mates. Two people suffered minor injuries, she said.
Hot, dry and windy conditions also helped fan a monthlong wildfire in rural Utah, where residents in the town of New Harmony were told to leave their homes as the blaze flared up over the weekend. The lightning-sparked fire has already destroyed three houses and blackened more than 12 square miles in the Pine Valley Wilderness area.