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Investigators: Arsonist caused Station Fire

Homicide probe under way as containment improves

Posted: September 3, 2009 9:52 p.m.
Updated: September 4, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Hwere's a map of the Station Fire as of Thursday night.

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Firefighters brought the sprawling Station Fire under greater control Thursday as investigators declared the blaze deliberately set and sheriff's detectives launched a homicide investigation.

Two Los Angeles County firefighters were killed in the massive fire on Sunday.

"We believe that this was caused by someone intending to set a fire," Los Angeles County Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said at an afternoon briefing.

Officials said forensic evidence at the fire's point of origin revealed that the wildfire - the largest in L.A. County and among the largest in Southern California history - was an act of arson.

Whitmore declined to elaborate on the evidence due to the ongoing investigation.

Greater containment
The fire, which had charred some 230 square miles of mountain terrain and destroyed 64 homes - including at least three in Acton - was 38 percent contained as of Thursday evening and burning mostly in remote terrain.

Smoke was still visible in the Santa Clarita Valley skies Thursday, but for the first time in six days the sky was more blue than brown. Air quality officials upgraded their rating from unhealthful to moderate.

In its eighth day Thursday, the Station Fire started behind La Cañada Flintridge and burned over the San Gabriel Mountains and down the other side to Acton, where it claimed at least three homes and forced evacuations before moving back into remote areas.

Six civilians and one firefighter have been injured in the blaze.

Two Los Angeles County firefighters were killed Sunday night battling the blaze. The body of Specialist Arnaldo Quinones was returned to his home town of Palmdale on Thursday in a solemn motorcade that traveled north on the Highway 14 freeway as hundreds of firefighters and their equipment lined overpasses on the route.

Firefighters stood at attention atop the overpasses as the hearse and fire trucks proceeded up the freeway, escorted by California Highway Patrol officers.

County fire officials have set a public memorial service for Quinones and Capt. Tedmund Hall of San Bernardino County at 10 a.m. Sept. 12 at Dodger Stadium.

The men were assigned to county fire's Air and Wildland Division, where they supervised an inmate fire crew at a forest campsite. They were driving in search of an escape route for the crew on Sunday when their engine plunged 800 feet down the steep mountainside and crashed upside down.

Rude awakening
Some Sand Canyon-area residents were apparently sent scrambling from their homes before dawn Thursday due to a false 911 phone alert.

Fire officials acknowledged that the 911 phone alerts, automated messages dialed to telephones in specific areas, went out to people who did not need to evacuate, but they said the Sheriff's Department was responsible.

Officials at Sheriff's Headquarters Bureau referred questions to the Fire Department, and officials at the county's Office of Emergency Management - which is in charge of coordinating emergency efforts - declined to comment.

Fire officials have said the Station Fire poses no threat to residents in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Flareup on Thursday
The fire flared up near homes on Thursday, forcing evacuation of about 25 people, but the firefight was on fronts miles away from the Santa Clarita Valley.

Some 12,000 homes in foothill communities below the fire's southeastern edge officially remained threatened, although other communities farther west that were under siege for days were out of danger.

Full containment was expected Sept. 15, meaning fire officials expect that they will have the blaze completely surrounded by then.
The forecast called for hot and dry weather during the next couple days, with Thursday's high hovering around 100 in the fire area, the National Weather Service said.

Firefighters have been conducting an aerial assault on the fire to complement the efforts on the ground. Helicopters have doused the fire with 1.7 million gallons of water - enough to fill about three Olympic-sized swimming pools - while airplanes have dropped 670,000 gallons of retardant on the fire.

Many homes were saved, but damaged areas looked like war zones to some returning evacuees.

"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."

Officials said they were pleased with the progress, but said they have much more work ahead.

"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."

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.

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