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Calif. wildfire heads north, threatens thousands

LOS ANGELES — A growing wildfire in the mountains above Los Angeles surged north Sunday, forcing more evacuations and threatening some 12,000 homes.

Residents of the small town of Acton were ordered to evacuate as the 4-day-old blaze headed into the Antelope Valley. The fire spread in all directions, leaving three people burned, destroying at least three homes and forcing thousands to flee.

"The leading edge, the one they're really focused on, is that northern edge. It's moving pretty fast up in that direction," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Randi Jorgenson. "But the fire's growing in all directions. All fronts are going to be areas of concern today."

For the third straight day, humidity was very low and temperatures were expected in the high 90s. Some 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze.

Mandatory evacuations were in effect for neighborhoods in Acton, Altadena, Glendale, Pasadena, La Crescenta and Big Tujunga Canyon.

More than 55 square miles of the western edge of the Angeles National Forest was scorched. The blaze was only 5 percent contained. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

At a news conference at the fire command post, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised firefighters for successfully protecting subdivisions in the foothills. The governor urged residents to get out when told to evacuate.

"There were people that did not listen, and there were three people that got burned and got critically injured because they did not listen," Schwarzenegger said.

The injuries occurred Saturday in the evacuation areas — two in the Big Tujunga Canyon area and one off Highway 2 near Mount Wilson, Jorgenson said. They were airlifted to local hospitals. Jorgenson had no further details on their injuries.

The flames moved swiftly along the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains despite mild winds blowing predominantly in the other direction. The fire traveled six to eight miles overnight and burned as actively during the night as it does during the day, according to Capt. Mike Dietrich, the incident commander for the Forest Service. Dietrich said he had never seen a fire grow so quickly without powerful Santa Ana winds to push it.

The fire line extended about 19 miles east to west.

At least three homes deep in the Angeles National Forest were confirmed as destroyed, but firefighters were likely to find others, Dietrich said.

Rob Driscoll and his wife, Beth Halaas, said they lost their house in Big Tujunga Canyon, where fire officials said homes were lost or damaged. By Sunday morning they were desperate for more information and came to the command post to get answers.

"Our neighbors sent us photos of all the other houses that are lost," Halaas said, her voice breaking as her young son nestled his sunburned face in her arms. "We've heard as many as 30 houses burned."

Fire officials assured them that their damage assessment teams were working hard to survey the damage.

Driscoll said 15 of his neighbors who live on private property within the forest were still waiting for word on their homes.

At least four evacuation centers were set up at schools and community centers in the area.

The fire, which broke out Wednesday afternoon, was the largest and most dangerous of several burning around southern and central California and in Yosemite National Park.

A massive plume of smoke could be seen for miles and bits of ash descended on cars as far away as downtown Los Angeles. The regional air quality agency issued a smoke advisory, warning all residents who live near the wildfire to remain indoors and avoid strenuous activity. Officials said air quality in the foothill communities around La Canada Flintridge was unhealthy, bordering on hazardous. People with heart or lung conditions, including asthma, were asked to consider leaving the area.

A major goal was to keep the fire from spreading up Mount Wilson, where many of the region's broadcast and communications antennas and the historic Mount Wilson Observatory are located, officials said. Flames were within two miles of the towers Sunday, fire officials said.

A second fire in the Angeles National Forest was burning several miles to the east in a canyon above the city of Azusa. The 3.4-square-mile blaze, which started Tuesday afternoon, was 95 percent contained Sunday. No homes were threatened, and full containment was expected by Monday.

A wildfire on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on the south Los Angeles County coast was 100 percent contained, according to county fire officials.

Southeast of Los Angeles in Riverside County, a 3.8-square-mile fire in a rural area of the San Bernardino National Forest was 75 percent contained as it burned in steep, rocky terrain in Beeb Canyon. No structures were threatened.

To the north, in the state's coastal midsection, a 9.4-square-mile fire threatening Pinnacles National Monument kept 100 homes under evacuation orders near the Monterey County town of Soledad. The blaze, 60 percent contained, was started by agricultural fireworks used to scare animals away from crops. The fire destroyed one home.

In Mariposa County, a nearly 6.8-square-mile fire burned in Yosemite National Park. The blaze was 50 percent contained Sunday, said park spokeswoman Vickie Mates. Two people sustained minor injuries, she said.

Park officials closed a campground and a portion of Highway 120, anticipating that the fire would spread north toward Tioga Road, the highest elevation route through the Sierra.

About 100 residents from the towns of El Portal and Foresta were under evacuation orders, said Brad Aborn, chairman of Mariposa's Board of Supervisors.

Associated Press Writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.