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Wildfires Rage In California, Killing Two Firefighters

August 31, 2009 at 1:27 PM EST
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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for four California counties Monday as raging wildfires burned across nearly 86,00 acres, threatening as many as 12,000 homes outside of Los Angeles. Two firefighters died after their vehicle slid down a cliff.
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JIM LEHRER: Eight wildfires burned across the dry hills of Southern California today. One of the blazes ballooned to 86,000 acres, and killed two firefighters.

California Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for four counties around Los Angeles. He urged residents to follow evacuation orders.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: Underneath heavy plumes of smoke, wildfires burned with a fury across California for a sixth day today. At a news conference in Los Angeles this morning, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said the whole state had been impacted.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, R-Calif.: Fires are burning from the north, the northern border of California, all the way south, and from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Sierra Nevada. There are fires everywhere. We have eight large fires around the state of California right now. But the firefighters have fanned out across California, and they’re doing an amazing job.

KWAME HOLMAN: The so-called Station fire raging 30 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles in the Angeles National Forest doubled in size overnight, threatening some 12,000 homes.

Also in the path of the 20-mile-long swathe of flames and smoke were an observatory and broadcast antennas for more than 20 television and radio stations and cell phone providers. Planes dropped retardant around the Mount Wilson complex to help slow the advance of the blaze.

The fire already has burned 21 homes and 164 square miles of brush and trees. But, as of Monday afternoon, it was only 5 percent contained. At least 6,600 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders, while more than 2,500 firefighters were battling the flames.

On the fire’s northwest front, two firefighters were killed Sunday on the job.

MIKE BRYANT, deputy fire chief, Los Angeles County: Two of our firefighters were in a vehicle and went over the side, and both of them suffered fatality, life-ending injuries.

KWAME HOLMAN: Authorities also have issued mandatory evacuations for parts of Glendale, Pasadena, and other cities north of Los Angeles consumed by smoke.

SUSAN D’AMARO: The fire was out of control. They were worried about where it was going to go. It was a little bit unpredictable, so they wanted to clear everyone out of the area.

KWAME HOLMAN: But some have ignored the warnings, staying behind to try to save their homes.

RHONDA NEWBORG: We just basically wanted to stay at home and just, you know, be here until the very end, or, you know, be able to water down the house, or, again, help our neighbors, if we can.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some residents in the town of Auburn, northeast of Sacramento, returned home to find nothing but charred ruins still smoldering. In all, the blaze destroyed some 60 buildings.

JACK KENNY: Our house is gone.

WOMAN: Are you serious?

JACK KENNY: I’m standing right there.

WOMAN: Are you looking at it?

JACK KENNY: I’m right at the corner house. The whole block — the whole block has been leveled, our block.

KWAME HOLMAN: One firefighter on the ground in Auburn described the challenge he and his fellow crew members were faced with.

PATRICK MASON, California firefighter: Basically, you have to go through and pick which ones you can save. We had one engine for the — I think there’s 10 houses in here. So, we just got to pick what we can save. The other ones, unfortunately, we have to let go.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Governor Schwarzenegger visited Auburn to view the damage. He urged Californians to heed evacuation warnings.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: I think the key thing I want to mention, also, to the people is that, when you hear from law enforcement anything about the evacuation, follow their orders, because there’s so many that think that they have to stay behind and protect their home, but they always — they sometimes pay dearly for that.

KWAME HOLMAN: And with the forecasts calling for hot and dry conditions in the days ahead, the fight against the fires is not likely to end anytime soon.

JIM LEHRER: On our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org, you can find links to the latest reports from our PBS colleagues in Southern California and the photographs from the fires.