Calif. Wildfires Spread, Homes Destroyed

The giant wildfire north of Los Angeles has gotten even bigger. As the blaze grows, so does its path of destruction. More than 100,000 acres have gone up in smoke, and thousands of homes are in danger. Firefighters plan to bring out the heavy artillery — they'll use water-dropping jumbo jets to try to make a dent in the flames.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

People here in Los Angeles are waking up to a massive wildfire north of the city that's getting even bigger overnight. More than 100,000 acres have burned. That's over the twice the size of Washington, D.C. Fifty-three homes and other structures have also burned, thousands more are in danger. Later today, firefighters will again bring out their heaviest artillery: water-dropping jumbo jets.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco has been following the fire all night, and she joins us now here at NPR West with the latest. Good morning.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, we're told that the fire line now stretches nearly 30 miles. Firefighters are hitting it with pretty much everything they've got, but it isn't remotely under control yet, is it?

DEL BARCO: Renee, this fire, the Station fire has been burning since last week at the Angeles National Forest, and so far, it's only about five percent contained. And officials say it could at least another week before it's over, possibly even more. The intensity of the flames are just incredible, but the problem is that this area hasn't burned in decades, maybe since the 1950s. It's just a lot of dense, dry brush. And with the drought we've had in the area and the extremely hot temperatures, it's what one official called the perfect storm for this fire. The only good news is that the Santa Ana winds that blow in every year haven't quite made it here yet.

MONTAGNE: Right, but the bad news, of course, is that it's hilly, which pushes fires up the hill, rugged, hard to get to. And also, if you picture a dry Christmas tree, that's what the timber is like there at the moment. What are you hearing from firefighters?

DEL BARCO: Well, the firefighters say that they're running into falling rocks along the steep and treacherous terrain. And one official says the fire's headed to just about anywhere it wants to go. This is how Mike Dietrich, the incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service, described it.

Mr. MIKE DIETRICH (Incident Commander, U.S. Forest Service): This is a very difficult fire fight. This is a very angry fire that we are fighting right now. Until we get a change in the weather conditions, I am not overly optimistic. But yet at the same time, our firefighters are going to be taking every action that they can in order to keep this fire from burning more structures.

MONTAGNE: And the fire which had been in much - in brush areas in - up in the hills, moved into residential areas late yesterday.

DEL BARCO: That's right. One spokesman told me that a fire has already destroyed two radio communications towers on Mount Disappointment, which is appropriately named. And we're still waiting to see if and when the fire reaches the top of Mount Wilson. Renee, that's where most of L.A.'s TV and radio towers are located, and if the transmitter's towers burn down, the power could go - be lost to broadcast stations, though satellite and cable service would continue. TV and radio stations are scrambling to find backups, and if the fire hits Mt. Wilson, some cell phone service could be interrupted. Communications could be cut for some police and fire operations and government agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and the Secret Service.

Also, transmissions for LAX, the airport, could seriously be damaged. And if the fire burns the towers, it could create a serious problem and cost about a billion dollars in damages, according to the estimates.

MONTAGNE: And Mount Wilson is the home of a very historic and important center for astronomy. The Wilson Observatory is based there. Tell us a little about that.

DEL BARCO: Well, that observatory is more than 105 years old, and it houses two giant telescopes and multi-million-dollar astronomy projects for UCLA, USC and UC Berkeley. In the 1920s, the observatory is where Edwin Hubble trained his telescope on distant galaxies to develop his theory that the universe was expanding. He discovered that the universe is much larger than anyone had ever imagined, and those two breakthroughs, along with Einstein's Theory of Relativity, led to the Big Bang theory, that the universe was created at one specific point in time.

MONTAGNE: So, very historic observatory, never burned, and gosh, everyone's, you know, worried about that now. The most tragic moment so far is that two Los Angeles County firefighters died. Can we just have a few seconds? But I guess we've learned that one of them was going to become a father.

DEL BARCO: Yes, that's right. Arnie Quinones and his wife were expecting their first child in three weeks. Now, he and veteran Fire Captain Ted Hall had been supervising inmates who were trained in wilderness protection, and these two died while they were trying to find an escape route for the corrections workers and inmates who were trapped trying to defend their camp from the fire. Their truck reportedly backed up when it ran off the road, and it plunged down the mountainside. Very, very sad.

MONTAGNE: Mandalit, thanks very much. That's NPR's Mandalit del Barco, reporting on the giant wildfire that continues to grow north of Los Angeles, and we'll be reporting on this all this morning.

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