Image: Smoke over downtown Los Angeles
Kevork Djansezian  /  Getty Images
Dodger Stadium and the Los Angeles skyline are shrouded in smoke Monday as the foothills fire burns 15 miles away.
updated 8/31/2009 7:06:36 PM ET 2009-08-31T23:06:36

The air quality turned hazardous, a brownish mushroom cloud billowed in the distance, and a gauze of gray smoke draped the Hollywood sign.

But in downtown Los Angeles, the show went on.

"Fire is fire. We're so used to it," said Iona Willis, who was outside power walking on a stifling Monday morning despite the smoke in the air and 90-degree temperatures. "Everything goes on as usual."

She was not alone. Dozens of cyclists congregated at an intersection and joggers passed on the sidewalks. A group of German tourists seemed too preoccupied photographing the Disney Concert Hall to notice the smoke from the fires 15 miles north of downtown.

"It's kind of becoming a tradition now in SoCal to have fires," said Garo Megerdichian, 50, who works downtown and said he never thought twice about staying in California even when a fire last fall narrowly missed his Orange County home.

The vicious wildfire raging through the Angeles National Forest blaze threatened about 12,000 homes and left two firefighters dead over the weekend. It also kicked up gigantic clouds of smoke, including a grimy tuft of cloud swirling behind the Hollywood sign.

A new way of life
But ask many residents of Southern California about the wildfires, and you'll get a similar response: They're becoming a way of life, just like earthquakes and drought.

This late-summer spate of fires were not being fanned by up the powerful Santa Ana winds that typically kick up in October. The largest of the fires in the Angeles National Forest was being fueled by extremely dry chaparral that hasn't burned in more than 40 years.

The torching of flammable brush in the forest is helping create smoky conditions that have only exacerbated air-quality woes in a city long known for its brutal smog.

Officials classified the air as hazardous over the weekend in the foothill communities of north Los Angeles County, where the air quality index on Sunday registered nearly four times the level considered unhealthy.

An on-shore breeze helped lower those readings on Monday, said Sam Atwood of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. But many area schools canceled gym class and after-school sports, and one district called off classes.

'Nice little apocalyptic plume'
Andrew Helm said he was keeping the air conditioner on to help his asthmatic wife breathe through the night at their Burbank home.

"It's worse than usual. This one seems a lot bigger and a lot more encroaching," said Helm, 40. "We're close enough for a nice little apocalyptic plume."

Still, many Los Angeles residents were braving the ashy air downtown.

Floyd Harrelson was one of a handful of people protesting a labor contract amid a cluster of downtown skyscrapers. He pointed out a thin layer of haze that obscured a high-rise building just across the street.

"I wish I didn't have to come out here," said Harrelson, 76, who puffed a cigarette while he propped up a large banner. "I can't breathe too good."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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