Week of Fires

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

A cooling trend in this weekend's weather forecast is the first real piece of good news since fires began to dominate life here more than a week ago.

The fire still sweeping through the Angeles National Forest has been a monster, atmospherically and historically.

Those giant smoke towers that soared so high over the San Gabriel Mountains that they generated their own weather brought out cameras and metaphors.

It's like Mt. St. Helens was the one I heard most often.

We're all familiar now with the phenomenon of pyrocumulus clouds. That's when puffy white vapor forms at the top of the rising smoke and heat.

They were all the proof we needed that, down below where the grunt work was being done on the ground, this was no ordinary brush fire.

These flames raced across more than 200 square miles of the local forest, and did so without the push of Santa Ana winds.

That makes it the largest wildfire on record in Los Angeles County, and one that will be remembered for more than impressive visuals.

There was the scary speed of the fire, the acreage often doubling overnight. Vast swaths of forest are altered, and for decades to come.

Thousands of residents in and near the foothills had to face the awful fear and uncertainty of evacuating their homes as flames approached.

Many thousands more breathed the smoky, unhealthy air that laid down over the basin. The lasting effect of inhaling all those particulates is something that people aren't looking forward to finding out about.

This is the fire where we learned the new rules of engagement for local TV news. Stretched thin by cutbacks forced by the loss of ad dollars, and possibly by spending so much money on Michael Jackson, stations didn't interrupt normal programming.

Many people complained TV was no help in assessing the threat to their homes. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich weighed in with a political blast, calling the lack of coverage shameful.

While TV was skimping, the Times used the opening to shine, moving more seamlessly than in the past between fast reporting on the web and the more archival role of the printed paper.

The coverage both places reminded me, not unhappily, of our quirkiness in Southern California.

Where else would a brush fire elicit a call for help to evacuate lions, tigers and chimpanzees from not one, but two refuges back in the canyons. One run by an ex-actress, the other by a former costume designer.

One man described fleeing from the flames with his family, their vital papers, their dog -– and their chicken. They got out -- in their 1931 baby blue Plymouth coupe.

I don't know what happened to his house, but hundreds of others were flat out saved by firefighters on the ground and in the air, making stands street by street.

Unless this fire comes down out of the hills again to ravage whole neighborhoods, the ratio of homes lost to homes protected will go down in the record books as pretty awesome.

Out at the fire command post one evening, I saw truck after truck roll in from out state. The most eye-catching carried a hot shot crew from the Zuni reservation in New Mexico.

That was the night a chief from the Los Angeles County Fire Department stepped to the microphone and disclosed the deaths of two firefighters.

His voice choked as he talked about his brothers, later identified as Captain Ted Hall and firefighter Arnie Quinones.

They held an impromptu memorial service out at the command post this morning. About a thousand firefighters went silent, then told stories about Ted and Arnie.

For the rest of us to pay our respects, there will be a public memorial at Dodger Stadium on September 12.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.