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Archive for Monday, July 31, 2000

California wildfire may take two weeks to contain

July 31, 2000

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— A fire ragging in the rugged Sierra Nevada swept through a tiny community on the remote Kern Plateau, destroying eight homes as it swelled to more than 60,000 acres Sunday.

"The last folks in there were the firefighters and they headed out just in time to get out of the fire's way," said Kern County Fire Department spokesman Chuck Dickson.

The flames charred pine forest and brush as they spread from the Sequoia National Forest, gaining 10,000 acres overnight Saturday and threatening homes along the fire line, about 120 miles north of Los Angeles on Sunday.

Firefighters estimate it will take nearly two weeks of digging and burning fire lines to surround it, and there's no telling how much the fire will grow in the meantime, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Geri Adams.

The weather forecast for the area was for hotter and drier conditions combined with afternoon thunderstorms, Adams said, adding, "That wind won't help us either."

The Sierra Nevada blaze was one of about 50 fires burning more than 488,000 acres across the nation Sunday, the National Fire Information Center reported.

In the West, wildfires also continued to burn in Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico.

In the scattered California community of Kennedy Meadows, which includes the tiny Pine Creek village that burned, some of the 43 permanent residents were moving horses and mobile home trailers to safety Sunday.

Heavy smoke hid the mountains, and blackened trees and shrubs lined the narrow road to the community already under orders to evacuate. A group of residents gathered at a general store to collect information and supplies, while others watched firefighters burning a fire line about a quarter-mile away.

Leona Hansen said she stayed open because her Kennedy Meadows General Store is the only place with telephones.

"We're waiting for them to say, 'This is it. Get out of here.' And when they do, we'll be out of here in a flash. We're not going to be heroes," she said.

About 1,350 firefighters, with the help of nine helicopters and four air tankers, were fighting the blaze, which has cost more than $3 million, Adams said. Eight firefighters have been injured since it began July 22.

"We still have an outstanding order (to bring in more firefighters), but with all the other fires we have in the U.S., we're still waiting," she said.

Fires also burned on the Pechanga Indian Reservation in the Cleveland National Forest to the south and in Los Padres National Forest, where three firefighters have been injured.

A man trying to spark the pilot light of his recreational vehicle's water heater with a burning piece of paper ignited the Los Padres fire a week ago about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco, said Forest Service spokesman Maeton Freel. He said the man could face criminal charges.

Farther east, a fire triggered by lightning on Wednesday had burned more than 65,000 acres by Sunday about 60 miles northeast of Elko, Nev.

In Montana, a cluster of six fires that had burned 44,000 acres and three Forest Service buildings in Custer National Forest was threatening 20 homes Sunday in southeast corner of the state. Nine homes and 29 other buildings were destroyed in a 29,000-acre fire north of Helena.

"We've had some really extreme nighttime fire weather," fire information officer Jack Conner said. Night humidity in the forest, normally 80 percent to 90 percent, has been topping out at 35 percent, he said.

In Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, the famous Anasazi ruins survived a 10-day fire that blacked more than 23,000 acres and uncovered more than a dozen new archaeological sites.

The fire was contained Sunday, but damage to roads and utility lines were expected to keep the park closed at least two more weeks.

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