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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Calif. residents return to survey fire damage

All residents forced to flee from a menacing wildfire have been allowed to return to survey the damage as crews took advantage of a break in the weather to strengthen their lines around the massive blaze north of Los Angeles.

"It's like, is this really our house? Is it really still here?" T.J. Lynch said about returning to his home in the Tujunga neighborhood late Wednesday. "Because we had made peace with the fact that we'd never see our stuff again."

"It looks like nothing changed, but when the sun comes up tomorrow, I expect we'll see the hills blackened and gray," the screenwriter said. "We'll hike up the hill and see how close it came to our neighbors."

Higher humidity levels allowed firefighters to set controlled burns and remove brush with bulldozers through the night to further surround the fire. Containment increased from 22 to 28 percent Wednesday.

Crews "made progress" overnight on the fire's western front, said John Huschke, a public information officer for the fire's command center. The fire has moved east into the San Gabriel Wilderness area and dozers are working to lay down 95 more miles of containment lines, fire spokeswoman Gail Wright said early Thursday.

Officials said they were pleased with the progress, but said they have much more work ahead as the forecast called for hot and dry weather in the next couple days.

"We're changing the pace and treating this as a marathon," U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich said. "If it were a 26-mile race, we'd only be at mile six."

Since the flames erupted beside a remote mountain highway on Aug. 26, the Station Fire has ravaged nearly 219 square miles, or 140,150 acres, of the Angeles National Forest. The blaze destroyed 64 homes, killed two firefighters and forced thousands to evacuate.

During the night, a firefighter injured his leg when he fell in a 20-foot ravine and was taken to a hospital by a medical helicopter, Wright said.

The search for what sparked one of the largest wildfires in Southern California history intensified Wednesday when U.S. Forest Service investigators gathered along a road in a blackened forest to hunt for clues near where the fire started. They shook soil in a can and planted red, blue and yellow flags to mark evidence beneath a partially burned oak tree at the bottom of a ravine.

Deputy incident commander Carlton Joseph said the fire was "human-caused," meaning it could have been started by anything from a dropped cigarette to a spark from something like a lawn mower. Forest Service officials said there was no lightning in the area at the time and no power lines in the vicinity, but later backtracked on Joseph's comments, saying they are looking at all possible causes.

"The only thing I can say is it is possibly human activity," Forest Service Commander Rita Wears said.

The fire also cast a smoky haze over the Los Angeles area and gave the night sky an eerie glow. The smoke spread throughout the West, affecting air quality in Las Vegas and combining with soot from local fires to block mountain views in Denver.