The unstoppable Angeles National Forest fire threatened 10,000 homes Saturday night as it more than tripled in size and chewed through a rapidly widening swath of the Crescenta Valley, where flames closed in on backyards and at least 1,000 homes were ordered evacuated.
Sending an ominous plume of smoke above the Los Angeles Basin, the fire was fueled by unrelenting hot weather and dense brush that has not burned in 60 years.
It took off Saturday afternoon in all directions, forcing residents out of homes from Big Tujunga Canyon to Pasadena, and reached toward Mt. Wilson.
Heavy smoke clung to the mountains and created a hot and massive convection column that limited the evening aerial fire fight.
Officials predicted that the blaze would continue its march toward homes and across hills through the night with flames that could reach as high as 80 feet.
Late Saturday, U.S. Forest Service officials said they were moving "several hundred firefighters" into the Acton area, where they expected the fire to reach this morning.
Forest Service officials said three civilians were burned and airlifted from rural Big Tujunga Canyon, where at least three to five homes were destroyed. One fire official, after surveying the canyon, estimated that the damage toll may be much worse.
No other homes had been lost by early evening as throngs of residents -- belongings loaded in cars -- descended from the hills.
"I wish I had good news for you," Les Curtis, a fire operations chief, said during a night briefing for firefighters. He shook his head and pointed to the map of the expanding fire zone. "How many of you have knots in your stomach?" he asked. More than a dozen raised their hands.
"Nothing can stop it," said Jost Vielmetter, 62, a Caltech scientist who watched the flames from the northern edge of Altadena.
By late Saturday afternoon, the fire had consumed more than 21,000 acres, propelled by temperatures that eclipsed 100 degrees, single-digit humidity and steep, rugged topography that made for a formidable foe despite low winds.
Firefighters can only expect a slight reprieve on the heat today as red-flag warnings extend until tonight. But more significant cooling and even a moist marine layer are expected Monday morning.
Fire officials estimate that about 10,000 homes are in danger if the fire continues burning unchecked.
At sundown, as scattered power outages hit the area, flames encircled the ridges near Briggs Terrace on the northeastern edge of La Crescenta. By 7:30 p.m., the northern end of Pickens Canyon, close to the neighborhood, exploded in flames.
"Oh, my God. This is what I've been dreading all day," said David Ferrera, 35, who grew up in the area.
It was the first time that he and his neighbors were seized with worry. At that point, clouds of glowing embers began floating up from the fire. Suddenly, so-called hotshots -- firefighters with shovels and axes -- rushed by on their way to battle.
Later, a wall of fire crept like lava along the mountainside toward Pickens Canyon homes. A tree would light up in a column of fire every few moments. On the streets, the air was still and quiet except for the crackle and roar of flames.
Firefighters climbed through backyards at the ends of the cul-de-sacs fronting the forest, laying their hoses and waiting to make a stand.
Capt. Kevin Klar of the Los Angeles County Fire Department was in place on Bristow Drive. "As far as the area goes, I think we're going to be all right," he said.
More than 1,800 firefighters from throughout California and the West used an arsenal of weapons to fight the flames.
Ten helicopters dropping buckets of water and eight air tankers were enlisted in the daytime fight.
Officials also are deploying at least one DC-10, one of the largest and most expensive pieces of firefighting equipment in the world.
Elsewhere, firefighters were on the verge of containing the Morris fire north of Azusa and a separate blaze on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Firefighters also made progress on a fire near Hemet in the San Bernardino National Forest, which has burned nearly 2,300 acres and was 30% contained.
As flames bore down on canyon cul-de-sacs in the Crescenta Valley into the evening, residents watched raptly as firefighters -- in the air and on the ground -- valiantly kept the fire away from homes.
On the northern edge of Altadena, a DC-10 unloading fire retardant at the base of a column of smoke received a standing ovation from residents in the 3900 block of Chapman Court, which had been under mandatory evacuation orders for an hour.
Among them was physician John Cooper, 52.
"I think the firefighters are doing an incredible job. I'm in awe. I'd like to line them all up and shake their hands one at a time -- and we also have our fingers crossed," Cooper said, acknowledging the precarious nature of his address. "Live on the edge, and you take your chances."
Evacuated residents could only wait, watch and worry as flames licked the ridges near their homes. Some La Canada Flintridge residents were evacuated Friday night, but on Saturday that mandatory evacuation order widened to parts of Altadena, La Crescenta, north Glendale and Big Tujunga Canyon. More evacuations were expected throughout the night.
All faced the same nerve-racking drill: the automated phone calls ordering them to leave, the choices about what to pack up, the negotiations with skittish pets refusing to be stuffed into portable kennels.
In Glendale, in the evacuation area north of Santa Carlotta Road, residents were packing up their cars and watering their lawns after being notified to leave.
Joanna Linkchorst, 42, dashed around her house videotaping her belongings, but appeared possessed of a preternatural calm. "For some reason I'm not concerned," she said. "There are far too many houses that would have to burn before it gets down here."
Although authorities stressed that people should not defy evacuation orders -- it puts them as well as fire and police personnel at risk -- some did anyway.
In Pickens Canyon, firefighter hotshots had taken up positions in front of about a dozen homes beneath the oak canopy. Every few minutes, patrol cars cruised by, urging holdouts to leave.
At 8:30 p.m., a law enforcement officer asked Bob Jamison and Gary Ireland, who were sprawled on lawn chairs watching the fire, to collect their belongings and leave the area.
"Everything's under control here," Jamison responded. "We got all the women, pets and important papers down the mountain."
Jay Porter, 47, and his two teenage sons stood on an Altadena ridgeline overlooking tinder-dry Millard Canyon as flames advanced to within 1,000 feet of his two-story Spanish-style home.
"I want to know what's going on here for as long as I possibly can," said Porter, who wasn't budging early Saturday evening. "Right now, I have more information than a lot of my neighbors."
He said, however, that he would relent overnight. He made reservations at a nearby Westin hotel that he said was offering "refugee specials" for evacuees -- in his case, that includes two dogs and a cockatiel.
He watched as earthmovers in the distance rumbled over the ridge, toppling flammable chaparral and small trees in their paths. "Makes me happy," he said.
Ray Henmann, a 76-year-old graphic designer from Glendale whose home on Brookhill Street is in the evacuation area, said he had no plans to leave his home of 48 years.
The fire, he said, would have to come within a few streets of his home before he fled. "I'm not going to panic, I've lived too long to panic," Henmann said.
Across the region, there was no escaping the specter of what has been dubbed the Station fire. An ominous cloud of smoke wafted across the area and rose as high as 20,000 feet in the air, visible from the ocean and the San Fernando Valley, even the Antelope Valley. Otherwise fire-savvy Los Angeles residents were so startled by the sight that they inundated 911 emergency lines with calls about smoke. Authorities begged people to stop calling.
Donna Robinson, 60, of La Canada Flintridge had been preparing to be evacuated since Wednesday, packing up documents, clothes and baby dish mementos of her adult children. She also packed up two dogs and three cats.
"I'm not even afraid now. I think it's good we're just out of the house. Now I feel it's not under my control," Robinson said Saturday morning as she sat with her husband, Paul, 57, outside the gym at La Canada High, the evacuation center.
Others couldn't escape the worry. It showed on Sonia Castellon's face as she made her way into the evacuation center. "I was trying to keep calm, keep it together. But the moment you leave your home it's hard," the 46-year-old dentist said as she began to tear up.
Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim, Carla Hall, Rong-Gong Lin II, Maeve Reston and Amber Smith contributed to this report.