An Ominous Start to Calif. Wildfire Season

A firefighter works the line of a wildfire near La Crescenta, Calif., Sept. 1, 2009. AP Photo/LM Otero

Updated at 7:51 a.m. Eastern.

Firefighters reported progress Tuesday against a gigantic blaze on the edge of Los Angeles that might be just a preview of even greater dangers ahead. The peak Southern California fire season hasn't even started yet.

The worst fires typically flare up in the fall, when ferocious Santa Ana winds can drive fires out of wilderness areas and into suburbs. As a result, Southern California could be in for a long wildfire season.

"When you see a fire burning like this, with no Santa Ana winds, we know that with the winds, it would be so much worse, so much more intense," said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Whaling.

The Santa Anas are so devastating when they carry fire because they sweep down from the north and reach withering speeds as they squeeze through wilderness canyons and passes and plunge into developed areas.

Even though winds have been mostly calm since the blaze began along the northern fringe of Los Angeles and its suburbs, the flames have spread over 199 square miles of forest in a week.

Citing new damage assessments, officials Tuesday raised the number of destroyed homes from 53 to 62 but said the number of homes remaining under mandatory evacuation orders was reduced by 300 to 6,000. Up to 12,000 homes were considered threatened at the height of the fire, though not all were ordered evacuated. One of the threatened houses was the home where the movie "E.T." was filmed.

But it was not the only significant blaze in Southern California.

In the inland region east of Los Angeles, 2,000 homes were being threatened by a fire of more than 1.5 square miles in the San Bernardino County community of Oak Glen, and a nearby 1.3-square-mile blaze was putting 400 homes at risk in Yucaipa. More than twice as many homes had been threatened but aircraft held the fire back and it was 70 percent contained by Tuesday evening.

The air assault includes a massive arsenal, including a 747 that can drop 20,000 gallons of fire retardant at once, and the "super scooper" a plane that can deliver more than 7,000 gallons of water - enough to cover 4 acres. It's the newest weapon in the fight to save Mount Wilson, site of Southern California's television, radio and cell phone towers, CBS "Early Show" weather anchor Dave Price reports.

"There's action everywhere," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said as a helicopter interrupted his comments at a news conference in San Bernardino County.

Containment of the big fire, known as the Station Fire, rose to 22 percent. U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich said he felt better but was not willing to say a corner had been turned.

"Right now if I were in a boxing match I'd think we're even today," Dietrich said.

One reason for the was the weather - higher humidity and cooler temperatures arrived late Tuesday for the first time since the fires ignited, reported CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes.

The moist air gave firefighters a better chance to try and corral the blaze, lighting backfires to burn off fuel ahead of advancing flames. But wildfires don't always take the predicted path, and firefighters still didn't expect to have the blaze fully contained for up to two weeks, Hughes reported.

Some sprinkles were reported, but no significant rain.

Wildfire photo essay
Local coverage from CBS station KCBS in Los Angeles

Officials were worried about the threat to a historic observatory and TV, radio and other antennas on Mount Wilson northeast of Los Angeles. But on Tuesday, firefighters set backfires near the facilities before a giant World War II-era seaplane-turned-air tanker made a huge water drop on flames below the peak.

The fire was still moving toward Mount Wilson, but Dietrich said he was confident that any damage would be minimized.

The Station Fire is one of hundreds of wildfires in a season that usually does not gather steam until October, when the Santa Ana winds arrive.

This year's destructive Southern California wildfires began in May, when 80 homes were destroyed and more than a dozen others were damaged in the Santa Barbara area. "Sundowner" winds, a localized version of a Santa Ana, whipped a brush fire into an inferno in neighborhoods on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest.

Wind has not been a problem in the current fire, but drought has. The region is in the midst of a three-year drought, and the tinder-dry forest is ripe for an explosive fire.

Residents had a range of emotions as they watched the fire - and they knew the lack of wind was a godsend.

"I'm a little concerned but not overly worried," said retiree Paul Westmoreland, 77, who lives in the Seven Hills neighborhood in Tujunga. "But if we had had high winds, this whole area would have gone."

Some of the spectators were residents who followed orders to leave but could not resist coming back to their neighborhoods.

Jennifer Pelon, 43, came back Tuesday morning to see if her 3,000-square-foot home on a hillside was still standing. She nervously watched as flames licked a ridgeline only yards from her home.

"It's a lot of stress and anxiety, watching," she said. "It's your whole life up there."

At the huge fire command center, Glendale firefighter-paramedic Jack Hayes, 31, recounted how he manned a 2,000-gallon water truck to extinguish flames bearing down on backyards.

"We've been knocking them all down and saving some homes," he said.

Hayes said he had not taken a day off for a week.

"You can't sleep," said Hayes, who had the beginnings of a beard and bloodshot eyes. "You're ready to go and there's always something you could be doing."

Two firefighters - Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale - were killed Sunday when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road. Quinones' wife is expecting a child soon, and Hall had a wife and two adult children.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sent their condolences to the firefighters' families. Gibbs said the White House will do whatever it can to assist state and local governments.

The cash-strapped state has spent $106.5 million of its $182 million emergency firefighting fund, and was hoping to get federal assistance to ease the burden.

The Station Fire was the biggest but not the most destructive of the wildfires currently burning in California. Northeast of Sacramento, a fire burning over a half square mile destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn. The fire was 80 percent contained Tuesday and no longer threatened any homes.
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