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Firefighters Report Progress on Massive LA Fire, Human Cause Suspected


Firefighters are making progress against a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles that has charred at least 570 square kilometers and destroyed more than 90 structures, including scores of homes and several commercial buildings. Investigators say the fire was caused by humans, not by a lightning strike. Officials say cooperative weather has kept the fire from spreading faster.

Firefighters using bulldozers have been extending a firebreak around the blaze in the mountainous national forest north of Los Angeles. They have built a fire line around about a quarter of the massive blaze. Although the fire is spreading, firefighters say they are making progress.

The blaze began one week ago above the hillside suburbs north of the city. Investigators have ruled out lightning as the cause, which, they say, means that the fire was sparked by humans -- either accidentally or through arson. Officials say the cause is still under investigation.

Scores of homes have been lost, mostly in wilderness canyons. But Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says the damage could have been worse had the fire struck a month or two later, when strong, gusting winds called Santa Anas blow in from the desert. "We are very, very fortunate. Had this been the fall with the Santa Ana winds, this fire could have been much larger and much more serious in terms of loss of life and property. So first and foremost, we have to thank God and nature, but also our firefighters," he said.

Two firefighters lost their lives near Los Angeles on Sunday as their vehicle plunged off a treacherous mountain road.

On Wednesday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger thanked firefighters at a Los Angeles base camp for their efforts. "And that's why I handed out breakfast to the firefighters and went around to the tents as they came back from battling these fires to thank them and to shake hands with them and let them know what great heroes they are," he said.

Schwarzenegger says three of the eight fires that are burning in the state have been contained. Five still pose a danger.

Officials warn that the L.A. fire is still largely out of control and that a drop in humidity could further dry the parched mountain brush and hinder their efforts. They also caution that winds could pick up at any time to fan the flames.

Some evacuation orders have been lifted, but officials say at least 12,000 homes remain threatened near the city. They are also worried about communication facilities atop Mount Wilson, and the nearby Mount Wilson Observatory, the site of major discoveries by astronomers. Firefighters have set backfires to clear brush in the area.

Several communities remain threatened, but Carlton Joseph of the U.S. Forest Service says firefighters are making progress on the southwest leg of the blaze, as well as other places. "We don't want to see this fire spread further and take out more forest watershed and impact communities," he said.

Local officials say the loss of underbrush might cause problems later, creating mudslides when winter rains set in.

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