LOS ANGELES — A deadly wildfire destroyed more than four dozen homes as it blackened a wide swath of tinder-dry Southern California forest, forced thousands of residents to flee and burned dangerously close Monday to a vital mountaintop broadcasting complex.
Fire crews battling the blaze in the Angeles National Forest tried desperately to beat back the flames and prayed for weather conditions to ease. The fire was the largest of at least nine burning across California after days of triple-digit temperatures and low humidity.
Columns of smoke billowed high into the air before dispersing into a gauzy white haze that burned eyes and prompted warnings of unhealthy air throughout the Los Angeles area.
"It's burning everywhere," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Dianne Cahir said. "When it gets into canyons that haven't burned in numerous years, it takes off. If you have any insight into the good Lord upstairs, put in a request."
The exact number of people injured or threatened by the fire was still not clear. Over the weekend, three people who refused to evacuate were burned when they were overrun by flames, authorities said.
Authorities revised an earlier report that five people were trapped in a canyon near Gold Creek. They later said five men and one woman refused several orders to evacuate the remote ranch. "When we tried to get them out, they said they're fine," said fire spokesman Larry Marinas.
Fire crews set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, home to at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and cell phone antennas, and the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory. The observatory also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs. It is both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern center for astronomy.
If the flames hit the mountain, cell phone service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted.
The blaze killed two firefighters who died when their truck drove off the side of a road with flames all around them. The victims were Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and Spc. Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale.
The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills is the biggest but not most destructive of California's wildfires. Northeast of Sacramento, a wind-driven fire destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn.