Originally published August 31, 2009 at 9:18 p.m., updated September 1, 2009 at 9 a.m.
A wildfire sweeping through the mountains above Los Angeles continued to spread Tuesday, burning scores of homes and threatening thousands more as well as a historic observatory housing some of the largest telescopes ever built.
At least 53 homes have been destroyed in the Station Fire as neighborhoods on the northern and southern flanks of the blaze were evacuated. Fire officials say it may take weeks to fully contain the flames.
The fire is by far the largest of several dotting the state. For six days, it has plowed its way through half-century-old thickets of tinder-dry brush, bush and trees just 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Some 12,000 homes are threatened and about 2,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
The flames threaten to climb Mount Wilson, a 5,700-foot peak near Pasadena that is home to a landmark 100-inch telescope — the world's largest until 1948. It is also the site of most of the radio and TV station towers in Los Angeles. Firefighters were setting backfires and spraying fire retardant in the area to halt the blaze's advance.
Dixie Dees, a spokesperson with the Station Fire incident command center, said the fire — which has destroyed more than 122,000 acres, or about 190 square miles, and is just 5 percent contained — was doubling in size every day and "behaving very erratically."
Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal said Tuesday that the blaze is not expected to be fully surrounded until Sept. 15.
Crews fighting the blaze are also grappling with weather conditions that favor fire, such as temperatures topping 100 degrees and low humidity. Temperatures near the Station Fire were expected to hit 102 degrees Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.
"It gets to a point in the afternoon with the wind coming up that it even makes its own weather," Dees said. "When the temperature goes up and humidity goes down and the wind comes up, which is what's happened in the last three or four days, that's kind of the perfect storm for very aggressive fire behavior."
Officials were looking for a break in the weather Tuesday and hope "Mother Nature cooperates," said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.
The flames also have moved dangerously close to the 160-acre Wildlife Waystation sanctuary, a rehabilitation facility for wild and exotic wildlife.
The sanctuary's publicist, Jerry Brown, said volunteers have helped move hundreds of birds, reptiles and chimpanzees to safety. He said the animals "don't quite know what's going on."
"There's a lot of commotion, there's smoke in the air," Brown said. "We still have lions, still have tigers, still have wolves — there's still a good bit of work to be done."
The swath of fire extends from the densely populated Los Angeles foothills communities of Altadena, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Tujunga and Sunland in the south to the high-desert ranch lands of Acton.
Tujunga Canyon resident Bert Voorhees said he and his son were able to retrieve several cases of wine from the brackish water of their backyard swimming pool Monday, about all he salvaged from his home.
"You're going to be living in a lunar landscape for at least a couple of years, and these trees might not come back," the 53-year-old Voorhees said, wondering aloud how many of his neighbors would choose to rebuild.
Two firefighters — Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Spc. Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale — were killed Sunday when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road. At least three residents who ignored an evacuation order suffered major burns.
Several fires across the state are much smaller and largely contained, but a new blaze in San Bernardino County — directly east of the Station Fire — has engulfed 900 acres so far and threatens 2,000 homes.