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Firefighters Make New Headway on Massive California Blaze

September 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Residents across several neighborhoods in Southern California returned home Wednesday as firefighters gained on a powerful wildfire. Jeffrey Kaye reports.
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JIM LEHRER: There was some good news today about the Southern California fires. Officials said substantial progress was made against a giant blaze outside Los Angeles, and investigators issued their first statement on what caused the fire.

NewsHour special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye has our lead story report.

JEFFREY KAYE: Cooler temperatures and humidity ruled the day, helping fire crews gain ground in a battle that began eight days ago. Officials reported making headway against the giant Station fire in the Angeles National Forest from Acton in the north down to Altadena in the southwest.

The big blaze had scorched more than 140,000 acres, an area roughly the size of Chicago. But, by this morning, more than 20 percent of it was contained within fire lines. Still, officials warned, the fight is far from over.

The fight ahead

Mike Dietrich
U.S. Forest Service
In terms of, are we out of the woods on this yet, the answer is no. There's a lot of open fire line out there. There is a lot of hard work to be done.

MIKE DIETRICH, U.S. Forest Service: This is going to be no small feat over the next several days. That's not going to happen. I'm still characterizing the fire. If it has a human characteristic today, it will be cranky one more day. And, in terms of, are we out of the woods on this yet, the answer is no. There's a lot of open fire line out there. There is a lot of hard work to be done.

And the question was, have we turned the corner yet? The answer is no, but I think we can see that there might be a warning sign that there's a curve or a corner up ahead.

JEFFREY KAYE: Time-lapse video of billowing smoke showed just how close the flames were burning near downtown Los Angeles, just 15 miles away.

At one point, authorities had warned, thousands of homes were endangered. But, today, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the city's luck had held.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, mayor, Los Angeles: We're very, very fortunate. Had this been the fall, with the Santa Ana winds, this fire could have been much larger and much more serious in terms of loss of life.

JEFFREY KAYE: Northeast of Los Angeles, firefighters set backfires to defend communications towers and antennas atop Mount Wilson. That peak is also home to a famed century-old observatory.

And farther to the east, flames burned into the San Gabriel Wilderness Area today. But evacuation orders were lifted for several foothill communities near the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. On a cul-de-sac in suburban Tujunga, Nancy Derzakarian, who had defied the evacuation orders, welcomed back Ann Shepherd.

NANCY DERZAKARIAN: We stayed here the whole time. But it was -- it almost came down to our house. But they did a great job. I mean, these people, last night, they camped up there, two of the cars.

WOMAN: Yes.

NANCY DERZAKARIAN: They were there all night.

WOMAN: That's wonderful.

NANCY DERZAKARIAN: And -- you know, it's feel safe.

Returning home

Frank Shepherd
This is my home. This is all we have.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Shepherd family had left reluctantly. Frank Shepherd and daughter Kimmy felt they had no choice.

FRANK SHEPHERD: We went our over to our neighbor Nancy's house and looked out her back window.

JEFFREY KAYE: Yes.

FRANK SHEPHERD: And the fire was right there. It was within 100 feet of her back window. That's when the police started coming up here and saying, everybody out.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why didn't you go when you were first told to go?

FRANK SHEPHERD: This is my home. This is -- this is -- this is all we have. The house at the end of the street, it's called the "E.T." house, because that's where the film was made. And the fire was going to take it, and they got back there, and they fought, and they fought, and they stopped it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Outside the Shepherd home, firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service planned operations to make sure that brush surrounding the neighborhood did not flare up again.

JERRY OLSON, fire engineer: The firing operations, the backfire operations, were successful.

JEFFREY KAYE: Backfire, right.

JERRY OLSON: We kept it out of the structures. Everything at this point now has line around it, so it's -- it's not going to grow any more on this side, unless it rolls out.

JEFFREY KAYE: Engineer Jerry Olson was part of team that combed through the nearby mountainous terrain, hosing down hot spots.

So, this is contained?

JERRY OLSON: Yes.

And our job today is to keep anything top of the hillside from hitting the road and then going below the road and starting a new fire. So, we have several personnel strung out along this division here, Division Delta, and our job today is just keep it out of these structures.

JEFFREY KAYE: In all, the Station fire destroyed more than five dozen homes. Two firefighters assigned to the blaze lost their lives. The U.S. Forest Service said today an investigation has determined the fire was caused by humans, but it's too early to say if it was started by accident or arson.