LOS ANGELES — Firefighters set backfires and removed brush with bulldozers across a huge swath of Southern California forest on Tuesday to try to contain a 190-square-mile wildfire that has destroyed 53 homes and threatened thousands more in foothill suburbs.
The commander of the vast firefighting operation expressed a positive outlook for the first time in the week since the blaze erupted in the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles and grew into a giant.
“I’m feeling a lot more optimistic today than I did yesterday and the crews are doing fabulous work out there on the grounds but the bottom line is that they’re fighting for every foot,” said Mike Dietrich of the U.S. Forest Service.
The fire continued to spread but Dietrich said the containment figure was expected to rise substantially from the current 5 percent after overnight progress was mapped. He noted that bulldozers had carved up to 12 miles of lines and no new structures were lost overnight.
Some 3,600 firefighters and aircraft were working across a 50-mile span to battle the blaze.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County, where two wildfires are threatening nearly 3,000 homes.
The governor made the announcement as he toured the county east of Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Los Angeles, Monterey, Mariposa and Placer counties already have emergency declarations because of fires.
Firefighters were keeping a close eye on the weather. Hurricane Jimena roared toward Baja California, but was not forecast to have much of a factor in firefighting efforts because it is expected to dissipate by the time it hits Southern California.
Meteorologist Curt Kaplan says there was a 20 percent chance of a thunderstorm in the fire area Tuesday, but that could end up being a bad thing because the storm could spawn 40-mph wind gusts. The one factor that’s helped firefighters this week has been the lack of wind to drive the flames. Kaplan says temperatures will begin slowly cooling later in the week.
“The good news is that it’s humidity,” Dietrich said. “The bad news is that it may produce lightning, possibly dry lightning, over parts of the fire area.”
The blaze threatened some 12,000 homes but had already done its worst to the suburban Tujunga Canyon neighborhood, where residents returned to their wrecked homes.
Bert Voorhees and his son on Monday fetched several cases of wine from the brackish water of their backyard swimming pool, 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. “Are enough of our neighbors going to rebuild?”
About 2,000 people were chased from their homes in triple-digit heat as fire bosses said it could take weeks to contain the fire. Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal said Tuesday that the blaze is expected to be fully surrounded Sept. 15.
Some people wouldn’t leave. Authorities said five men and one woman refused several orders to evacuate a remote ranch in a canyon near Gold Creek. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s office had initially said the people were trapped and could not be rescued.
Dietrich said people who choose to stay take their lives in their own hands.
“As the sheriff said, they’ll take their next of kin and ask where their dental records are stored and we’ll go back in after it. We can’t be their guardians or parents.”
Two firefighters — Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo “Arnie” Quinones, 35, of Palmdale — were killed when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road on Sunday. Quinones’ wife is expecting a child any week, and Hall has a wife and two adult children.
The 53 homes destroyed included some forest cabins, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross. He did not know how many were full-time residences.
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. It also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs in its role as both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern center for astronomy.
If the flames hit the mountain, some cell phone service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted.
Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Whaling said the fire was creeping toward the peak Tuesday.
The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills was 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.
Schwarzenegger on Monday toured the Auburn area, where only charred remnants of some homes remained. At some houses, the only things left on the foundation are metal cabinets and washers and dryers.
East of Los Angeles, a large fire forced the evacuation of a scenic community of apple orchards in an oak-studded area of San Bernardino County.
Brush in the area had not burned for a century, fire officials said. Flames burning like huge candles erupted between rocky slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains and the neat farmhouses below.