Wildfires Scorch Western States

As wildfires continue to burn hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the western United States, fire officials today said this is the worst fire season in more than a decade, and that the outlook calls for it to get worse.

It’s the worst fire in the history of California’s Sequoia National Forest, almost doubling in size in the last 24 hours.

The mammoth blaze in the rugged Sierra Nevadas grew to 60,000 acres, forcing residents in a rustic mountain village to pack up their livestock and leave under skies filled with smoke and flames.

The Sierra Nevada blaze was one of 50 fires burning about 500,000 acres across the nation, the National Fire Information Center said. In the west, wildfires continued to burn in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Michelle Barrett, a spokesperson with the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Id., says weather in several states is providing the fuel to keep the wildfires going.

“We have five new large fires throughout the west. The weather is continuing to be difficult for us, with very high temperatures and very low humidity. The result is we’re seeing very extreme fire behavior and fire dangers.

“In addition, we’re expecting some lightning across Washington State and Oregon which will likely make our situation even worse.”

About 1,350 people, nine helicopters, four air tankers, 13 bulldozers and 15 water tenders are fighting the blaze, which has cost $3.37 million so far, said Geri Adams, U.S. Forest Service fire information officer. Eight firefighters have been injured since the fire began July 22, including one who was treated for first- and second-degree burns to one arm.

“We still have an outstanding order [for more people], but with all the other fires we have in the U.S., we’re still waiting,” Adams said.

Forced to Flee

The main priority for firefighters is trying to save the small California community of Kennedy Meadows, where 43 full-time residents play host to scores of annual vacationers. An evacuation order was issued Thursday across the Kern Plateau, but some residents have opted to stay in the isolated area, where generators are the only source of power and telephone service was first installed less than a year ago.

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,” Hansen said.

Some landowners who were away even returned home upon learning of the fire, Kern County fire Capt. Tomas Patlan said.

People who defy the order are warned that law enforcement can no longer protect them, Patlan said.

Jan Gant, who owns Grumpy Bear’s, a log cabin-style restaurant, was busy serving breakfast Saturday morning. She never had time to evacuate.

“I was feeding the firefighters. The closer the fire got, the faster I cooked.”

Stretched to the Limit

Eight homes have been destroyed. Damage could have been worse if firefighters had not cleared timber around the structures.

As many as 40 homes are still threatened, and resources for fighting the blaze are stretched to the limit.

“We’ve got a lot of fire activity at one time,” said firefighter Andy Menshek. “We just don’t have enough people.

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