The giant fire in Angeles National Forest continued its slow-motion rampage through the mountains Sunday, causing the deaths of two firefighters as it bore down on the semirural community of Acton and threatened to overrun Mt. Wilson.
The two firefighters were killed when they drove off the side of a treacherous road in the Mt. Gleason area, south of Acton, around 2:30 p.m., said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant. They were later identified as Arnaldo Quinones, 35, of Palmdale and Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County.
“This accident is tragic,” Bryant said, choking up as he spoke Sunday evening. “This is a very difficult time for L.A. County Fire Department and the men and women that serve day in, day out.”
The fire had churned through more than 42,500 acres of chaparral and forest, from the edge of metropolitan Los Angeles up to pine-clad ridges and down toward the Mojave desert. More than 12,500 homes were threatened and 6,600 were under mandatory evacuation orders Sunday night. Eighteen residences have been destroyed, fire officials said, mostly in the Big Tujunga Canyon area.
The fire was 5% contained, officials said, and at least temporarily eased off the foothill communities from La Canada Flintridge to Altadena.
Much of Sunday turned into a blistering-hot waiting game for firefighters, who were trying to determine where the fire would move next. Rather than battling the flames in the sheer granite canyons of the interior, with heavy vegetation more than 40 years old in many areas, they cut fire lines near threatened neighborhoods.
“In this rugged, steep terrain, with this brush as thick as it is, we are having difficulties establishing containment lines where we can make a stand,” said Capt. Mark Savage, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “This fire is still very much out of control.”
Fire was burning all around Angeles Crest Highway near Mt. Wilson on Sunday evening. Earlier, hand crews cleared brush to protect the historic observatory and critical transmission towers for local television and radio stations.
By 9 p.m. a strike team was positioned to protect the observatory and transmission towers, but the flames had not reached the site at the top of the 5,710-foot peak above Pasadena.
Standing at the base of Mt. Wilson Road, U.S. Forest Service Fuels Battalion Chief Larry Peabody said five fire engines would be at the peak through the night. “Their mission is to defend the antennas, the observatory and the buildings,” he said Sunday night.
The century-old observatory holds what was for decades the largest telescope in the world, and was instrumental in many of astronomy’s biggest discoveries, including research that led to the Big Bang Theory.
“It’s a serious situation. Is the observatory going to make it? We’re doing everything in our power. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it is impacted by fire today or tomorrow,” Bob Shindelar, operations branch director of California Incident Management Team 5, said Sunday afternoon.
More than 2,800 fire personnel from around the state have converged to battle the Station fire, along with 12 helicopters and eight air tankers.
They had hoped that the day would bring cooler, more humid air. But the red-flag fire alert was extended through today, as the fire grew in all directions and sent a column of smoke high into the air -- mushrooming into a towering pyrocumulus cloud that could be seen across the Southland.
Meteorologists predicted hot, dry conditions would continue without relent until at least Tuesday.
“We may have slight relief by Tuesday,” said Joe Sirard, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “We may have a bigger cool-down later in the week. But that’s kind of iffy. We’re just not sure at this point.”
Even without much wind, the fire grew Sunday to more than 19 miles long east to west and 16 miles north to south.
“This is so unusual. Those other large wildfires were driven by winds. When the winds stopped, the fires stopped,” said L.A. County Fire Capt. Mark Whaling.
Firefighters were holding the line north of Glendale, La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge, but the fires continued toward Acton and Mt. Wilson.
Fire officials worried the eastern flank could approach the upper edge of Sierra Madre by today and that a finger of flames on the west could hit Sunland. But officials said they were “fairly confident” they could keep the fire out of Acton.
Elsewhere in the region, firefighters were making progress on the Cottonwood fire east of Hemet, which had burned through 2,400 acres and was 75% contained. The Morris fire, which burned more than 2,100 acres north of Azusa, was 85% contained. Both were expected to be fully contained by today.
Another fire broke out Sunday just before 2 p.m. about 20 miles east of San Bernardino, burning about 350 acres. Evacuations were ordered for the Oak Glen community.
At a morning news conference, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged people in fire evacuation zones to get out -- noting that three residents in Big Tujunga Canyon who tried in vain to save their homes were seriously burned.
“There will be people who don’t listen,” the governor said at the fire command post in Lake View Terrace. “Move as soon as [firefighters] say to move.”
A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s official said roughly half the residents under evacuation orders in the Acton area, on the north slope of the San Gabriels, had refused to leave.
Scott Wright, 50, was one of them. Up a dirt road high above Soledad Canyon, he and his family were watching the line of fire on the ridge about 1:30 p.m. when the wind suddenly picked up. The smoke tilted ominously down toward them. The fire started lashing its way down the canyon as timber popped and cracked.
Wright moved his gardening machinery and trailer away from the brush. His dogs paced nervously around the driveway under a darkening sky.
“If anything happens, I’m jumping in the pool,” he said.
His daughter Angelina Rini had what fire officials would call common sense: She was out of there. But her son Joseph, 11, wanted to stay.
“You’re coming with me,” she commanded with finality.
In the family’s driveway, firefighters from Santa Maria watched the angle of the smoke to see what the wind was up to.
Battalion Chief Scott Johnson radioed to strike teams scattered around the canyons, telling them to have a safe space to retreat to if the fire overcame them.
“This fire is converting from a slope-driven to a wind-driven,” he said. “That’s when it gets dangerous.”
But this was not a Santa Ana event, saving firefighters from driving ember storms and racing flame fronts. Instead, the wind shifted back and forth, went slack and picked up again, as inland air played tug of war with sea air.
Under these conditions, wind generally blows up into the mountains in the afternoons, and then down in the night and early morning. Forecasters warned of the likelihood of thick smoke in the San Fernando Valley and western San Gabriel Valley this morning.
Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim, Amber Smith, Rong Gong Lin II, Corina Knoll, Paul Pringle and Hector Becerra contributed to this report.