LOS ANGELES — A deadly wildfire destroyed more than four dozen structures as it blackened a wide swath of tinder-dry Southern California forest, forced thousands of residents to flee and burned dangerously close Monday to a vital mountaintop broadcasting complex.
Fire crews battling the blaze in the Angeles National Forest tried desperately to beat back the flames and prayed for weather conditions to ease. The fire was the largest of at least eight burning across California after days of triple-digit temperatures and low humidity.
The fire scorched 164 square miles of brush, destroyed 53 buildings and threatened more than 12,000 others, but the lack of wind kept them from driving stormily into the hearts of the dense suburbs northeast of Los Angeles.
The 53 buildings destroyed included some forest cabins, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross. He did not have an immediate breakdown on how many of the structures were full-time residences.
Columns of smoke billowed high into the air before dispersing into a gauzy white haze that burned eyes and prompted warnings of unhealthy air throughout the Los Angeles area. Smoke could be seen billowing around the fabled Hollywood sign.
Five people became trapped inside a smoky canyon after they refused to evacuate threatened areas. They reported they were stranded at a ranch near Gold Creek, Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. A sheriff's helicopter was unable to immediately reach them because of intense fire activity, but would try after the flames passed, he said.
"What this says is, 'Listen, listen, listen,'" Whitmore said. "Those people were told to get out two days ago, and now we are putting our people in danger to get them out."
"It's burning everywhere," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Dianne Cahir said. "When it gets into canyons that haven't burned in numerous years, it takes off. If you have any insight into the good Lord upstairs, put in a request."
The exact number of people injured or threatened by the fire was still not clear. Over the weekend, three people who refused to evacuate were burned when they were overrun by flames, including a couple who had sought refuge in a hot tub, authorities said.
Fire crews set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, home to at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and cell phone antennas, and the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. The observatory also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs. It is both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern center for astronomy.
The fire about a half-mile away was expected to reach the mountaintop sometime Monday night, said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Whaling. If the flames hit the mountain, cell phone service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted, but the extent was unclear.
The blaze killed two firefighters, destroyed at least 21 homes and forced thousands of evacuations. The firefighters died when their truck drove off the side of a road with flames all around them.
Two firefighters killed
The victims were fire Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale. Hall was a 26-year veteran, and Quinones had been a county firefighter for eight years.
Quinones' wife is expecting and due to give birth to their first child in the next few weeks.
Hall and his wife have two boys, ages 20 and 21, and was described as a family-oriented man who loved riding motorcycles.
Track U.S. wildfiresThey died fighting a fire that showed no signs of subsiding Monday. People who fled returned to find their homes gone.
"It's the worst roller coaster of my life, and I hate roller coasters," said Adi Ellad, who lost his home in Big Tujunga Canyon over the weekend. "One second I'm crying, one second I'm guilty, the next moment I'm angry, and then I just want to drink tequila and forget."
Ellad left behind a family heirloom Persian rug and a photo album he put together after his father died. "I'm going to have to figure out a new philosophy: how to live without loving stuff," he said.
More destructive fires
The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills is the biggest but not most destructive of California's wildfires. Northeast of Sacramento, a wind-driven fire destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn.
The 275-acre blaze was 50 percent contained Monday afternoon and full containment was expected Tuesday. It wiped out an entire cul-de-sac, leaving only smoldering ruins, a handful of chimneys and burned cars.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Auburn area, where only charred remnants of homes remained on Monday. At some houses, the only things left on the foundation are metal cabinets and washers and dryers.
"It was embers traveling in the wind, landing on the roofs, landing on attics, getting into that home and burning the home on fire," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Some mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, but most residents are still being told to stay away while crews work to restore electricity and hose down embers.
East of Los Angeles, a 1,000-acre fire threatened 2,000 homes and forced the evacuation of a scenic community of apple orchards in an oak-studded area of San Bernardino County. Brush in the area had not burned for a century, fire officials said. Flames burning like huge candles erupted between rocky slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains and the neat farmhouses below.
With highs topping 100 degrees in some areas and humidity remaining low, the National Weather Service extended a weekend warning of extreme fire conditions in the central and Southern California mountains.
Winds were light, which prevented the flames from roaring at furious speed into towns. In 2003, a wind-whipped blaze tore through neighborhoods in San Diego County, killing 15 people and destroying more than 2,400 homes. That fire burned 273,000 acres — or 427 square miles — the largest in state history.
Overall, more than 2,500 firefighters were on the line. More than 20 helicopters and air tankers were preparing to dump water and retardant over the flames. Two Canadian Super Scoopers, giant craft that can pull thousands of gallons of water from lakes and reservoirs, were expected to join the fight later in the day.
In La Crescenta, where the San Gabriel Mountains descend steeply into the bedroom suburb a dozen miles from downtown Los Angeles, 57-year-old Mary Wilson was experiencing her first wildfire after nine years of living in a canyon.
Her family was evacuated twice in the past five days, she said.Video: Fires threaten communications hub
"We saw the flames. My daughter got really scared," she said. But she was philosophical: "You have to surrender to the natural forces when you choose to live up here. It's about nature doing its thing."
Also in La Crescenta, dispatchers overnight activated a system that sent a recorded evacuation warning to people, but it turned out to be a mistake.
Whaling, the L.A. County fire captain, says the message applied to only a small number of residents closest to the fire but instead a large number got the sleep-shattering calls. He said he does not know how many people were involved in the call.
"They pushed the wrong button," he said.
Terry Crews, an actor promoting the new movie "Gamer" on KTLA-TV, talked about being forced to flee two days ago from his home in Altadena, in the foothills above Pasadena. He saw 40-foot flames, grabbed his dog and fled.
‘You feel helpless’
"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "I'm from Michigan. I'm used to tornadoes ... but to see this thing, you feel helpless."
"This is like 'The Ten Commandments,'" he said, referring to the movie. "You go, 'holy God, the end of the world.'"
An animal sanctuary called the Roar Foundation Shambala Preserve, six miles east of Acton, was in the mandatory evacuation zone, but fire officials decided removing the animals would be "a logistical nightmare," said Chris Gallucci, vice president of operations.
"We have 64 big cats, leopards, lions, tigers, cougars. ... The animals are just walking around, not being affected by this at all," Gallucci said. "But if we panic, they panic. But we are not in panic mode yet."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.