Fighting California Blaze With 'Special Forces' of Firefighters

Weather helps firefighters and special "Hotshot" teams gain advantage.

Sept. 2, 2009 — -- Firefighters made important headway in Southern California today on wildfires that swept through the foothills near Los Angeles. The burn area covers 218 square miles, roughly the size of the city of San Francisco.

Investigators said humans caused the fire, but have not said whether it was an accident or arson.

The threat to the historic Mt. Wilson telescope and the cluster of broadcast towers that serve Los Angeles eased as the fires lessened.

"We had a few days that were touchy, but things are improving now and I am very optimistic we are going to be fine here," said Dave Jurasevich, supervisor of Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Smoke from the fire has blown all the way east to Denver. Helicopters and airplanes have been crucial in the fight against the blaze, dropping water and painting the mountains with retardant in advance of the fire's spread.

Some residents have returned to their homes in neighborhoods that were threatened, and more are expected to return soon.

Cooler, more humid weather helped firefighters wage an "even" battle, a fire official said.

"Right now if I were in a boxing match, I'd think we're about even today," U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich told The Associated Press Tuesday. Dietrich downgraded the fire as no longer "angry," but "cranky." At last report the fire was 22 percent contained, up from 5 percent Monday.

The weather advantage may be temporary, however, as the Weather Channel reports there is "talk" of lightning and gusty winds from isolated dry thunderstorms.

"Still, it is just an isolated chance of that happening," the report said. "Firefighters will likely gain even more on the wildfire today."

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

Special fire teams called the Hotshots have been lighting controlled fires to sap the wildfire's fuel.

"These guys are like the Special Forces of the firefighter industry," U.S. Forest Service official Nathan Judy told "Good Morning America."

Using flare guns and tanks of fuel, the Hotshots burn boundary lines through the brush, carefully managing the blaze with water from the ground and air by helicopter.

While lighting even controlled fires is dangerous, Judy said it was "just another day at work."

Historic Observatory, Communications Center Still Standing

Dietrich said that bulldozers had carved up to 12 miles of lines and no new structures were lost overnight Tuesday.

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

The Station Fire has not reached California's famed Mount Wilson Observatory and communications center, which houses vital equipment for the transmission of 22 California television stations, 25 FM radio stations and numerous cell phone providers.

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

The Mount Wilson Observatory, a fixture in Southern California since its founding in 1904, is responsible for discovering "countless galaxies," and is home to the world's largest publicly accessible telescope, the observatory's Web site said.

Emergency Funds Requested, Fire Tornadoes Scorch Calif.

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.

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."

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.

Dead Firefighters' Tale of 'Selflessness' Emerges

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.

"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."

At least eighteen other firefighters have been injured, the governor's office reported Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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