California Fire Tornadoes Spread Flames

The eight wildfires expanded by a total of 16,000 acres over the last 24 hours.

ByLee Ferran and Lindsay Goldwert via via logo
August 31, 2009, 7:25 AM

Sept. 1, 2009 — -- California wildfires consumed even more territory in the last 24 hours, at times erupting in devastating fire tornadoes, but for the first time in a week of losing ground to the flames firefighters today expressed optimism that their efforts were having an effect.

The eight wildfires expanded by a total of 16,000 acres over the last 24 hours. Some 3,600 firefighters are battling the largest fire, which has consumed 190 square miles of brush -- an area about the size of Tuscon, Ariz.

Firefighters are working fast to build 50 miles of line that would defend the the historic Mt. Wilson observatory and communication towers in the Angeles Angeles National Forest just north of Los Angeles.

California has burned through nearly two-thirds of its emergency firefighting money early in the season. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other authorities called for more emergency funds Tuesday.

"If we were to deal with two or three more major incidents in the state of California, fires, floods, natural disasters or man-made disasters -- there's not enough depth of resources," said Lou Paulson, president of California Professional Firefighters.

Nearly 6,000 firefighters are digging in for a sustained battle with the eight fires still roaring in Southern California.

Homeowner David Shapero stayed up all night watching the hills.

"Last night it was really bad…flames shooting over the ridge," he said.

Click here for the latest map tracking California's wildfires.

"I'm feeling a lot more optimistic today than I did yesterday and the crews are doing fabulous work out there on the grounds, but the bottom line is that they're fighting for every foot," U.S. Forest Service Capt. Mike Dietrich told The Associated Press.

Dietrich downgraded the fire as no longer "angry," but "cranky."

He was referring to the massive Station Fire that has been raging through the Angeles National Forest. The flames are just miles from the city's edge and firefighters are battling to save the observatory and transmission towers on Mount Wilson, located in the forest.

Dietrich said reinforcements and foam retardant has improved the chances of keeping the flames off of the Mount Wilson facilities.

"The fire is still likely to impact the area around Mount Wilson, but we have no way to know the predicted damage," he said.

Although the Station Fire continued to spread, Dietrich said the containment figure was expected to rise substantially from the current 5 percent. He noted that bulldozers had carved up to 12 miles of lines and no new structures were lost overnight.

Some 3,600 firefighters and aircraft were working across a 50-mile span to battle the blaze.

The fires have scorched more than 100,000 acres, destroyed at least 70 structures and taken the lives of two firefighters so far.

The wildfires have been so intense they have triggered multiple fire tornadoes sending flames 100 feet in the air.

The fire tornadoes, also known as fire whirls, are caused by hot, rising columns of air that pull the flames skyward. According to a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, fire tornadoes are a "rare but potentially catastrophic form of fire."

California Wildfires Still Burning Strong

In La Crescenta, Calif., where fires haven't burned in 60 years, firefighters started "controlled burns" -- organized fires sparked by the firefighters to clear land before the wildfires had a chance to move in.

Firefighters in southern California were also looking at the weather for help, but fearing it could also make things worse. Hurricane Jimena, headed for Mexico's Baja California, wasn't expected to reach the fires. But there was a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms in the area. While the increase in humidity would help tamp down flames, lightning strikes and high winds could be a deadly combination.

In Auburn, Calif., at least 60 structures have been destroyed by the fire, leaving hundreds of residents homeless.

"It feels like your heart's being pulled out," one woman said, looking over the devastation. "I mean, those are your lives."

Auburn resident Tim Meyers' house was spared by the flames, but his neighbors were not so lucky.

"I'm very thankful that ours is still standing, but I'm devastated for my neighbors," Meyers told "Good Morning America."

His wife, he said, is still "in chaos" and will not be moving back into the house that stands alone on his block. "You can't live in an area that looks like a war zone," he said.

The two firefighters killed in the state's biggest fire Sunday were trying to save an inmate fire-crew camp on Mount Gleason, the Associated Press reported.

Firefighters Capt. Ted Hall and Spc. Arnie Quinones were in a campsite with 55 inmates, several correctional officers and fire personnel when the flames tore into the camp. The firefighters moved everyone into the dining hall as the rest of the camp was flattened by the fire, the AP said.

Knowing the building was only temporary shelter, Hall and Quinones braved the flames and got in their firetruck to find a way out. At some point in their frantic search, the truck slipped off the blacktop and rolled 800 feet down the mountainside, landing upside down. Soon, the spreading fire overtook the downed vehicle.

Memorial for Firefighters Who Died Battling Wildfires

"It hits home," Los Angeles Fire Capt. Sam Padilla told the AP. "This morning, my daughter hugged me a little tighter than usual."

Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said, "They were selfless. They put others' safety ahead of their own."

A memorial service is scheduled for later this week at the firefighters' staging camp.

The White House issued a statement Monday that said, "The president and first lady send their deepest condolences to the friends and families of these two lost heroes."

Eighteen other firefighters have been injured, the governor's office reported Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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