Wildfire Forces Evacuations in LA's Griffith Park

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A wildfire roiled through rugged brush-covered hills in the city's sprawling Griffith Park on Tuesday, triggering evacuations of the city zoo, a museum and other popular sites as dangerously hot and dry conditions plagued Southern California.

A towering column of smoke rose over the middle of the city as
hundreds of firefighters and five water-dropping helicopters rushed
to Los Angeles' landmark park - a mix of wilderness, cultural venues, horse and hiking trails and recreational facilities set on more than 4,000 acres on the hills between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

Residents of neighborhoods along the park's edge nervously watched billowing smoke.

"Most of us saw this on TV and raced home to turn on our sprinklers," said Chad Griffin, 33, a resident of the Los Feliz district. "This is an early wake-up call for everyone in this area."

The blaze was reported at 1:30 p.m. and grew to 150-200 acres. Containment was estimated at 20-25 percent by late afternoon, said
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

No homes were immediately threatened but authorities said the battle would continue into the night. The city requested help from the state and two retardant-dropping airplanes arrived in the late afternoon.

Authorities were investigating whether the fire broke out after a person discarded a cigarette at one of the park's golf courses, a law enforcement official familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

The person tried to put out the fire but was badly burned and was taken to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, the official said.

Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda told a news conference that authorities were questioning a person who walked out of the brush onto a golf course.

"He's not a suspect. He's just somebody we're questioning," Rueda said.

The man, possibly homeless, told investigators he fell asleep while smoking and was burned on his stomach and shoulders, said a high-ranking city official who requested anonymity since the arson unit had not announced its findings.

"The man claims he fell asleep on the trail, and his injuries appear to be consistent with that version," the official said.

At one point, flames came very close to a firefighting crew using a hose to douse flames near a pedestrian bridge. Aerial news footage showed flames roaring up a hill and the firefighters retreating under the bridge. Crews behind them tried to beat back the fire with hoses and moments later a helicopter dropped water on the area. Fire officials said none of the firefighters were injured.

The fire erupted on the second day of a heat spell. The National Weather Service said downtown hit 97 degrees, 23 degrees above
normal, tying the record for the date. Humidity fell to just 9 percent during the day. The region was already woefully short of moisture, with rainfall measured downtown more than 11 inches below normal.

Rangers evacuated the park's Vermont Canyon area, which includes
the Los Angeles Zoo, two golf facilities, a merry-go-round and a
magnate school, said Jane Kolb, a city Department of Recreation and
Parks spokeswoman.

Fire Capt. Rex Vilaubi said the evacuations were voluntary and the areas were not in imminent danger of being overrun.

The Autry National Center, which includes a museum of Western artifacts, was evacuated. Staff threw tarps over its collection of memorabilia and artifacts to protect them in case the sprinkler system went off, said Faith Raiguel, chief operating officer.

"We can see the fire from here ... it's up the hill," she said.

"It looks really dark and evil and ominous," Brian Wotring, 35, catering manager at the museum cafe, said before jumping into his car. "It looks really scary."

The fire burned to the east of Griffith Observatory and it was closed down although it never appeared threatened, said director Ed Krupp. However, tourists were sent away and staff was sent home.

Departing tourists appeared calm and stopped to take pictures of the flames.

"It's far enough away that I don't feel threatened," said Katherine Coates, 24, of Little Rock, Ark. "Right now it's more spectacle than anything else."

Heavy smoke and debris may have caused a momentary drop in power
in a high voltage transmission line that runs by the park, said Joe
Ramallo, a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokesman.

The dip in power was observed around downtown as energy was
rerouted to other transmission lines, Ramallo said.

In March a fire burned 150 acres of brush in Griffith Park. Authorities said it was started by two boys playing with fire.

To the south in San Diego County, a 1,250-acre fire at Camp Pendleton was 80 percent contained late Tuesday afternoon and the rate of spread had "significantly slowed," the Marine Corps said in a press release. No injuries or structural damage were reported. The fire began Monday on a training range.

In neighboring Orange County, a 140-acre fire in Featherly Regional Park was 70 percent contained.

Several daily heat records were broken Monday. Among them, Los
Angeles International Airport recorded a high of 88, beating the 80-degree record set in 1984.
Associated Press Writers Daisy Nguyen, Robert Jablon, Jeremiah
Marquez, Solvej Schou and Greg Risling in Los Angeles and Elliot
Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)