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Schwarzenegger tours fire devastation

Vows to help victims; blazes losing strength

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lifted a dumbbell amid the charred ruins of a home in Tujunga Canyon yesterday. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lifted a dumbbell amid the charred ruins of a home in Tujunga Canyon yesterday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
By Greg Risling and Raquel Maria Dillon
Associated Press / September 4, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured a ravaged community yesterday after a wildfire destroyed dozens of homes, as firefighters began to bring the blaze under greater control.

The blaze was 38 percent contained yesterday, up from 28 percent the previous day. The fire now measures 147,440 acres, or 226 square miles - one of the largest in Southern California history.

Schwarzenegger talked to residents about their losses and later thanked firefighters for their work. At one point during the tour, the former bodybuilder picked up a 30-pound barbell amid the wreckage.

“Even though we are still battling those fires, we are now trying to help get people’s lives rebuilt,’’ Schwarzenegger said. “When you see this kind of devastation, it’s horrible to lose your home, your personal belongings.’’

Despite their overall progress, firefighters dealt with a flare-up overnight in a remote canyon as strong down-slope winds “just kind of blew the fire up,’’ said US Forest Service official John Huschke. Twenty-five people in 11 homes were evacuated.

The wildfire, now in its eighth day, has destroyed 64 homes, burned three people, and killed two firefighters. During the night, a firefighter injured his leg when he fell 20 feet from a cliff and was taken to a hospital by a medical helicopter, officials said. He was in stable condition.

Full containment was expected Sept. 15, meaning fire officials expect that they will have the blaze completely surrounded by then.

Firefighters have been conducting an aerial assault on the fire to complement ground efforts. Helicopters have doused the fire with 1.7 million gallons of water and airplanes have dropped 670,000 gallons of retardant on the fire.

“We’re changing the pace and treating this as a marathon,’’ US Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich said. “If it were a 26-mile race, we’d only be at mile 6.’’

Schwarzenegger got an earful from some residents as he toured the community of Vogel Flats in Big Tujunga Canyon, where most of the 40 homes were leveled.

Bert Voorhees, 53, who lost his 800-square-foot home, wondered why firefighters didn’t have aircraft or strike crews available before the fire raced into the canyon during the weekend and wiped out the community.

“I just know a terrible mistake was made in this canyon,’’ said Voorhees, a civil rights lawyer. “It’s much bigger than this canyon. The fact that it cost two guys their lives, it’s like bigger than any of this.’’

Voorhees suggested that fire officials bowed to political pressure and opted to protect richer neighborhoods to show off an aerial assault instead of snuffing out the fire when it was in its infancy.

Fire officials denied they were influenced by legislators on where to put firefighters and equipment.