La Verne, California Fire Forces Evacuations

LA VERNE, Calif. (AP) -- A wildfire in the foothills above Los Angeles jumped from 8,000 acres to 12,000 acres in just a few hours Tuesday, sending smoke pouring over the sprawling metropolitan area and triggering public health warnings.

The fire, spread across 11 miles of the San Gabriel Mountains, has destroyed 44 cabins and homes and threatens hundreds of others. Flames raged unchecked as firefighters worked in rugged canyon terrain against erratic winds and triple-digit temperatures.

``I can see flame right from my back yard. We got ash in the back yard, on the sidewalk and the pool,'' said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, who lives in Claremont, 40 miles east of downtown. ``It's not good. I've not seen anything like that.''

Some two dozen aircraft dropped water and fire retardant on the fire, which authorities said had the potential to grow to 20,000 acres.

Fear of new fires led officials to close the 650,000-acre Angeles National Forest, which includes the mountains, to recreation.

``We certainly can't afford another fire,'' said Darren Drake, a fire spokesman. ``This has got our hands full.''

Conditions were so hot and dry around the fire 40 miles northeast of Los Angeles that brittle chaparral and other brush virtually exploded in flames when hit by sparks.

``It's whompin','' Drake said.

The fire threatened upscale homes in La Verne, San Dimas and other suburbs.

``It's very stressful. You work all your life and to see it threatened to this degree,'' said George Villegas, 37, an insurance salesman who took a day off work to keep watch on his $600,000 home. His belongings were packed into his three cars and his wife and two sons were staying with relatives.

Other residents described flames that towered 50 feet in the air and jumped between ridges.

Voluntary evacuations were called for at least 500 homes and 1,000 people. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for 77 recreational cabins in San Dimas Canyon, and more than 200 youngsters were taken out of two juvenile detention camps.

Authorities were investigating the cause of the fire that began Sunday. Officials said it has spewed a roughly 2,000-foot-thick layer of smoke over portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

An unusually strong inversion layer capped the smoke, and there was no wind to disperse it.

``If I didn't know it was smoke, I'd think it was a low fog layer,'' Lu Rarogiewicz said as he looked over the San Gabriel Valley from 5,700-foot-high Mount Wilson. The mountain was briefly enveloped in smoke Tuesday, forcing astronomers to suspend solar observations with the telescopes that dot the peak.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors pollutant levels in the region, issued a special smoke advisory Tuesday, urging the public to avoid unnecessary outdoor activity in smoky areas.

In Northern California, a 1,600-acre fire 50 miles south of San Francisco had burned two outbuildings and threatened at least 50 rural homes. Wary residents spent Monday night atop ridges and huddled in pickup trucks.