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Calif. Wildfires Threaten Lives, Homes

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Calif. Wildfires Threaten Lives, Homes

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Calif. Wildfires Threaten Lives, Homes

Calif. Wildfires Threaten Lives, Homes

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says five people who refused to heed wildfire evacuation orders are trapped in a canyon and it's too dangerous to rescue them. The wildfires are threatening thousands of homes in the area, prompting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in four counties.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A huge wildfire north of Los Angeles is getting bigger, and it's threatening more lives and property as it grows. The blaze has already consumed about 100,000 acres along a 20-mile path. And it turned deadly yesterday when two Los Angeles County firefighters ran their truck off a mountain road. Their sacrifice was noted today by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): Every Californian is grateful for their bravery and for their great service. And of course, they are my heroes. And I'm sure that - I know they are also yours, too.

SIEGEL: Governor Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in four California counties where wildfires are now burning. The one outside Los Angeles is by far the biggest. NPR's Ina Jaffe has been monitoring developments, and she joins us now from our California headquarters, NPR West.

And Ina, I know that thousands of homes are in danger, but there's also a concern that the fire could knock out radio, TV and cell phone transmissions. What's the latest on that?

INA JAFFE: Robert, nearly all of the television and FM radio stations here have transmitters on top of Mt. Wilson. There are also cell phone and emergency communications equipment up there. And anyone with cable or satellite service would still be able to watch TV even if the fire overtook Mt. Wilson. But for people who depend on signals over the airwaves, they'd be out of luck if the flames got up there. There's one other thing that is very significant that's up on top of Mt. Wilson, and that's the historic Mt. Wilson Astronomical Observatory. It's a 40-acre complex, actually, of telescopes and other instruments. But one other thing they have is a Web cam. So I've been looking at it all day. It shows the view west towards all the transmission towers on top of Mt. Wilson. And I've seen a lot of smoke, but so far, no flames. On the other hand, there are some fire officials who are saying that the fire could be there by tonight.

SIEGEL: Well, give us a sense of what this area is like where the fire is burning and what the firefighters are up against there?

JAFFE: I've been hiking up there for years, actually. And so, I'm fairly familiar with the area. And it is a mountain range. It's the San Gabriel Mountains. It's the mountains that you see sometimes in the background of those glamour shots of downtown L.A. And they're beautiful, but they're very steep and they're very rugged. And some of the canyons there haven't burned in 40 years. There's a lot of fuel for this fire.

SIEGEL: The fire is, obviously, having a big impact on the foothill communities near the fire lines. How are people there coping with this?

JAFFE: Well, there are more than 6,000 homes that are under mandatory evacuation orders. In one canyon area, though, there were five people who decided to hold out. And then today, they asked to be rescued. But now, sheriff's officials say it's too dangerous for them to send their helicopters in there, and they're going to have to wait for the flames to pass by the area. But the residents in these areas are accustomed to potentially living in the path of fire, and they take it seriously. I spoke to a woman today named Gay Yee(ph). And she and her family lived right at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. And a couple of days ago, they saw flames getting close and they were ready to get out.

Ms. GAY YEE: We had to pack up the kids and send them over to some friends. And we went into evacuation mode, turned the cars around facing outward just to be ready. And that afternoon, my husband cleared out the gutters, cut back the trees away from the roof line. And it's funny, you know, when you are facing this, you find out how unimportant most things were. All I cared about was grabbing the photo albums, and my insurance papers, and that was it.

JAFFE: I should mention that she is not in a mandatory evacuation zone. And she said the flames were moving away from the house. And so, they're sitting tight for now.

SIEGEL: Ina, just briefly, what does nightfall do to the firefighting effort?

JAFFE: Usually, it slows down the growth of the fire because the temperatures cool off, but that definitely did not happen last night. It also makes it harder for helicopters to fly, to drop fire retardant on flames. And so, that slows down the firefighting effort. They're still, nevertheless, predicting containment of this fire by September 8.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Ina.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ina Jaffe reporting on the massive wildfire burning north of Los Angeles.

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