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Huge Blaze Continues to Consume Forest

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One of the largest brush fires of recent years continued to burn out of control Thursday in the Angeles National Forest near Castaic, perhaps portending one of the worst fire seasons in more than a decade, fire officials said.

Searing summer temperatures and tinder-dry chaparral enabled the arson fire to consume more than 21,000 acres by Thursday afternoon, with vanguards of flame pushing higher into rustic hillsides.

Nearly 1,200 weary firefighters had managed to contain only 30% of the blaze, even bigger in sheer acreage than the Calabasas/Malibu fire of 1993, which burned 16,500 acres but also destroyed 388 homes. Paradise Ranch, a trailer park in Castaic that had been threatened by the encroaching wall of flames, was evacuated voluntarily but was no longer in immediate danger late Thursday, said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Greg Cleveland.

No lives or homes have been lost, but the extremely hazardous fire conditions that helped this brush fire to spread could mean similar fires in the months ahead, warned County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman.

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“I must caution all residents here in Southern California that we are in very critical fire conditions right now, and that all firefighting resources are going to have to be put to use to get through this season without serious loss of property and loss of life,” Freeman said at a news conference.

Considering the condition of the brush and other factors, including recent high temperatures, this may be the most dangerous fire season since 1981, Freeman said.

That year, a 17,500-acre fire damaged five homes in the hills north of Chatsworth, while a separate, smaller fire destroyed six homes near Chatsworth Reservoir.

“We are clearly a month ahead of schedule in terms of the dryness of the brush,” Freeman said. The dry brush not only burns very rapidly, but it is highly conducive to “spotting,” in which sparks and embers become airborne and land ahead of the fire, creating separate fires, Freeman said.

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“We are praying for rain,” he said.

The dire conditions seemed to catch county fire officials by surprise. Less than two months ago, the county Board of Supervisors voted to lease two CL-215Y firefighting planes--known as Super Scoopers--from the Canadian province of Quebec, but leased them only for the peak fire season between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15.

On Thursday, after asking the Quebec government to make the planes available as soon as possible, Freeman and Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Antonovich defended the county’s actions, saying it is easy to second-guess whether the planes might have kept the so-called Marple fire from spreading out of control into the Castaic foothills.

“I think human nature makes us want to speculate, to say, ‘Gee, if they had been here on this fire,’ or, ‘What if?’ ” Freeman said. “But that, from [our] experience, is really impossible to do.”

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The Super Scoopers are now expected to arrive by Sept. 6. If nothing else, Freeman said, this fire has shown how necessary they are, especially because the county otherwise must rely on planes and helicopters that belong to state and federal firefighting agencies that are often busy battling other blazes.

Freeman said property damage and firefighting costs for the Marple fire have exceeded several million dollars. Included in that was the loss of four personnel carrier trucks destroyed in the fire, worth about $200,000, that had been used to ferry in firefighters.

A 15-year-old San Fernando youth who is accused of starting the fire shortly after noon on Monday was assigned an attorney and was arraigned Thursday in Sylmar Juvenile Court. He denied the charges and was ordered held at Sylmar Juvenile Hall.

The boy, whose name was not released, was found walking away from the raging fire by California Highway Patrol officers, authorities said. Sheriff’s deputies said the boy, whose parents had reported him missing hours before the fire started, told them he started the fire on a whim.

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During their efforts to contain the fire Thursday, firefighters set a back burn in an 11-mile stretch between Liebre Mountain and Bear Canyon, about 18 miles west of Lancaster.

“It’s a controlled fire, so when the fire does reach that area, it’ll just burn and we’ll have more containment,” said Sandra Quiet, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Two northbound lanes of the Golden State Freeway remained closed near Castaic, and forest officials evacuated Cienega Campground, a small recreational area with 22 campsites near the trail to Red Rock Mountain. Castaic Lake, a popular Labor Day retreat for campers, boaters and fishermen, is closed until further notice.

Although no major injuries were reported, 52 firefighting personnel suffered minor injuries such as smoke inhalation and bee stings, fire officials said.

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Mountain chaparral tends to dry out and burn naturally, usually in cycles of 40 to 60 years, said wildlife biologist Patti Krueger of the Angeles National Forest. About 55,000 acres burned during a similar blaze near Castaic in 1968, she said.

In the Riverside community of Homeland--about five miles west of Hemet--1,200 acres of grass on steep hillsides burned along with several sheds and barns and one older home that had not been occupied for several years. One man was airlifted from his home in the afternoon. There were no injuries.

The fire was expected to be contained by midnight.

Times staff writer David Ferrell contributed to this story.

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