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Calif. Wildfires Rage, but Firefighters Make Some Gains

September 1, 2009 at 6:02 PM EDT
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Firefighters were able to contain more of a wildfire blazing through 190 square miles of Southern California on Tuesday, but a forecast calling for high winds threatened the progress. Ray Suarez reports.

JIM LEHRER: Huge wildfires burned across more of Southern California today. Together they covered some 200 square miles, with more than 50 homes destroyed. But firefighters voiced some tentative hope.

Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

RAY SUAREZ: Aerial shots showed a pall of thick smoke and ash hanging over the region again today, as the series of wildfires raged.

The largest, the so-called Station fire in Angeles National Forest, grew to more than 121,000 acres, up 16,000 from late Monday. One edge of the giant blaze was just 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, being fed by 40- to 50-year-old brush that is tinder-dry.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a new state of emergency in San Bernardino County, just east of Los Angeles.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, R-Calif.: We have a lot of fires all over the state of California. We have fires from the northern border, all the way south, and from the Pacific to the Sierra Nevada, fires, fires, fires.

But we are very fortunate that we have the best and the most aggressive, best trained, and most courageous firefighters in the world. We have right now, like I said, eight major fires. One is almost put out. Then we have only seven left.

RAY SUAREZ: But there were more evacuations today, as the Station fire threatened thousands more homes in foothill suburbs.

Bulldozers were brought in to clear vegetation and create a 12-mile buffer zone to keep the flames from spreading. And more than 5,700 firefighters labored away, hoping for help from higher humidity and milder winds.

LEE SCHIEL: The wind is calm, but you never know, in this Santa Ana condition, when it’s going to come up and blow the other way. So, we’re guardedly optimistic. But until — until this is knocked down and we’re not in such close proximity to the houses, I think it’s always a viable worry.

RAY SUAREZ: Even as the battle progressed, officials also warned it could take weeks before the flames are fully under control. And the governor acknowledged, the fires are also ravaging California’s already weak economy.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: The state, as you know, is struggling financially, because we just have dealt with a $23 billion deficit. And, then, a few months ago, we have dealt with a $42 billion deficit. So, obviously, we are financially struggling, economically struggling. But I always made it clear that, as long as I’m governor, public safety is our number-one priority.

'Perfect conditions for a fire'

Jeffrey Kaye
NewsHour Special Correspondent
There's a lot of frustration out here, because you had really the perfect conditions for a fire of this magnitude, a drought that's been going on for 10 years, dry brush that hasn't burned in something like 40 years.

RAY SUAREZ: So far, it's cost nearly $14 million to battle the Station fire alone.

And special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye joins us now. He spent much of his day reporting on the Station fire. He's with us from a neighborhood near the fire in Tujunga, California.

And, Jeffrey, fire officials are saying it may takes weeks to get this fire under control. Why so long?

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, there's a lot of frustration out here, because you had really the perfect conditions for a fire of this magnitude, a drought that's been going on for 10 years, dry brush that hasn't burned in something like 40 years.

The topography here is very steep, and firefighters often refer to fires that are fed because of the topography, steep inclines that push fires uphill and downhill. This is really a challenge. They have been setting controlled fires that will hope -- they hope will join together and provide protection.

They have used -- been using bulldozers. They typically use crews out digging trenches and making roads to put up fire breaks. But it's -- it's tedious work. Helicopters coming in dropping -- dropping water, planes dropping fire-retardant chemicals, but this is a big one, and it's hard to get at.

RAY SUAREZ: Have the police been successful in getting people to leave their homes in the most threatened areas?

JEFFREY KAYE: How successful have they been?

Well, there have been various reports of -- of people who have stayed put. I heard today they may be exaggerated. But, you know, if you see a fire that's a long way off, your tendency is to ignore a mandatory evacuation order, your inclination might be. It's the wrong one, because these fires can be very unpredictable.

In the area I'm standing in, Tujunga, there are homes just to the left of me that are under mandatory evacuation orders. And those people -- many of those people have left. Folks around here have taken various decisions. Some are staying put. They're not under mandatory evacuation on this particular street.

Nonetheless, others have packed up. And -- and they're out of here. They're not coming back.

I should say a word about what a mandatory evacuation is. It -- it sounds very legal, but there's really no legal standing for it. It's not as if a cop is going to come and arrest you for not evacuating under a mandatory evacuation order.

As one said, this is America. Americans can do what they -- what they please. It is a strong suggestion that you leave if you're under mandatory evacuation.

RAY SUAREZ: Do different rules for insurance kick in when -- when you have been told to leave, as opposed to maybe making the decision on your own?

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, there is an insurance factor that does kick in. If you're under mandatory evacuation, under some policies, you become eligible for temporary housing relief. You can go to a shelter or they will -- not a -- not a free shelter. They will pay for you to go to a motel or a hotel and ride out the fire at -- because of your insurance.

So, there is some -- some legal basis, some legal standing that the insurance companies look for with the mandatory evacuation orders.

Protecting Mount Wilson

Jeffrey Kaye
NewsHour Special Correspondent
Mount Wilson is an area which has an historic observatory that opened in 1907 [...] There are also communications towers there for [...] So, the mandate of the firefighters is to make sure that structures are protected.

RAY SUAREZ: Thousands of firefighters are deployed on the lines, but they have paid special attention toward beefing up the force fighting to protect the top of Mount Wilson. What's up there? Why is it so important to keep the fire from spreading there?

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, Mount Wilson, the last I heard, was pretty much safe.

Mount Wilson is an area which has an historic observatory that opened in 1907. Charles Hubble, the businessman-turned-astronomer, did much of his work there. There are also communications towers there for -- most of the broadcast media in town have their towers up there for radio and -- and television stations.

So, the mandate of -- of the firefighters is to make sure that structures are protected. So, that was a key place for them to -- to try to do what they could. Unfortunately, there's one road up, same road down. So, it -- it became risky. They had to evacuate themselves.

But, as I say, the last I heard, they're still up there. They went back up there. And they're protecting Mount Wilson. And it does look in -- in good shape, with the -- the mountain and -- at least the top of the mountain, where the observatory and the other structures are.

RAY SUAREZ: Only about a half-a-day's drive from where you're standing, the people of Baja California are battening down for Hurricane Jimena. Might Southern California get some of that rain?

JEFFREY KAYE: No rain. Rain is unlikely to become -- to be coming this way.

The rain is supposed to be dying out by the time that storm hits here. But they are very worried about what that storm might bring, in terms of winds, because those winds can be extremely erratic. It's hard to know now which way the fire is coming -- is going. And, if those winds hit, it's going to be -- it's going to make planning for the fire and fighting that fire that much tougher, given the erratic winds.

There's also the possibility of lightning strikes, not because of the -- of that hurricane, but just because of the weather conditions that have been made by and created by the fire itself. So, they have got a lot of work ahead of them. And it's tough going.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Kaye with us from Tujunga, California, good to talk to you.

JEFFREY KAYE: Good to talk to you, Ray.