LOS ANGELES – For more than a week, the typically blue sky above the Angeles National Forest has been hidden behind a thick veil of gray smoke. The mountains usually visible for miles could barely be seen up close.
Fueled by triple-digit heat and dry brush untouched by flames for more than 60 years, the Bobcat Fire continues to elude firefighters two weeks after it exploded in the San Gabriel Mountains. Firefighters point to steep terrain and changing winds as two of the many factors that make the fire east of Los Angeles particularly challenging.
Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby recently highlighted a third challenge: Firefighting resources across the state are being challenged by the worst fire season in California history.
“Five of the top 20 fires ever burned in the state of California are burning right now in Northern California, which challenged us to get some of the resources here that we normally would have,”
The cause of the Bobcat Fire, which charred more than 91,000 acres and was contained 15 percent on Saturday, has not been determined, the U.S. Forest Service said. About 1,600 people are assigned to fight it, a number that would normally exceed 2,000 for a fire of this size, an Angeles National Forest spokesperson said.
Many area residents remain vigilant as firefighters issue evacuation orders, revoke them, and issue new ones for neighboring areas. Checking the air quality before venturing out for a walk or jog has become a daily occurrence. People are advised to keep an emergency kit near the front door or inside their car in case they suddenly flee.
On Saturday, people living in nearby desert towns were ordered to evacuate. Last week, residents on the southern edge of the San Gabriel Valley fire were told to leave their homes.
“It’s been a stressful week,” Monrovia resident Anna Howie told NBC News. “I don’t think I slept three or four hours every night.”
Michael Kunch, a resident of Monrovia, said he has experienced many fire seasons in California, but “this was the scariest.”
The fire remained stuck at 0% containment for several days, but then steadily grew to 3% as firefighters rushed to protect the historic Mount Wilson Observatory. Founded in 1904, the observatory once housed revolutionary astronomers such as Edwin Hubble and is home to dozens of irreplaceable telescopes.
Containment rose to 6% last week, only to return to 3% later as the winds shifted and strengthened. At one point, the fire occurred less than 150 meters from the observatory, forcing employees to evacuate and firefighters to aggressively take up positions in a national forest where elevation ranges from 1,600 feet to over 10,000. feet.
On Thursday, the containment rose to 9% and on Friday it nearly doubled to 15%.
But as the containment grew, so did the fire. It was about 70,000 acres on Friday morning, but 24 hours later it had extended to more than 91,000 acres.
Officials estimate the damage to the facilities was minimal, but affected homeowners say they are devastated by the destruction.
“I was heartbroken about the loss,” Deb Burgess, chairman of the board of directors of Sturtevant Camp, said in an email.
Burgess owns a cabin in historic Sturtevant Camp, a group of huts dating back to 1893 that can only be reached on foot or on horseback. She was not allowed to visit the site and fears the Bobcat Fire may have destroyed it.
Locals fear that 80 cabins in nearby Big Santa Anita Canyon have also been destroyed or damaged.
“These are very rare circumstances,” said Andrew Mitchell, a spokesman for the Angeles National Forest. “It’s the most horrible thing in the world when you see a burned-down house. We’re really trying to focus on that.”
Firefighters are deploying every weapon in their arsenal as the Bobcat Fire continues to rage. They are demolishing the control lines around its perimeter to try to slow it down. Planes and helicopters are discharging water and flame retardants when possible, although smoke conditions made flying impossible for several days last week.
On the ground, firefighters are cleaning up “slops,” spot fires that jump control lines and using small, controlled fires to prevent a larger, more ferocious flank from igniting.
“This is a perfect storm,” Mitchell said. “Each fire has its own individual challenges and you must adapt to these challenges.”