Wildfires Scorch Western States

ByABC News

July 30, 2000 -- 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.

The blaze was 10 percent contained this morning, and firefighters estimate it will take nearly two more weeks to completely surround it, Adams said. There is no estimate of how much the fire will grow in the meantime, she added.

The extended forecast for the area about 120 miles north of Los Angeles called for hotter and drier conditions combined with afternoon thunderstorms, said Adams.

“That wind won’t help us either,” she said.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Waiting For More Firefighters

Farther south, a fire that began Saturday afternoon consumed 2,080 acres of heavy brush, some of which has not burned in more than a century, on the Pechanga Indian Reservation in the Cleveland National Forest.

The fire threatened as many as 30 cabins at the Woodchuck Campground, which was evacuated, as about 370 firefighters fought the flames in 100-degree heat.

Firefighters had not contained any of the blaze today, and officials had no estimate for when it would be fully surrounded. The cause remains under investigation.

In Los Padres National Forest, nearly 1,400 firefighters continued to battle a blaze that had grown to 4,250 acres by this morning. Three firefighters had been injured, two with bee stings and one with heat exhaustion.

The fire was 70 percent surrounded as of 6 a.m. today, with full containment expected Tuesday.

A man trying to spark the pilot light of his recreational vehicle’s water heater with a burning piece of paper ignited the wildfire, said Forest Service spokesman Maeton Freel. Freel said the man could face criminal charges and be held financially responsible for the $4.3 million firefighting efforts.

Fires in Big Sky Country

The battle against forest and grass fires in Montana continued on the ground and in the air today, with a 44,000-acre cluster of fires near Ashland the front-runner, at least in size.

The Fort Howes fires about 20 miles southwest of Ashland were burning mostly in the Custer National Forest. They began as six fires, several of which burned together.

Other fires in Montana included the 6,600-acre Tobin 17 miles east of Ashland; the 16,825-acre Cave Gulch in the Canyon Ferry Lake area near Helena; and the 9,000-acre Upper Monture, northeast of Missoula. Crews were mopping up after the Bucksnort fire, which burned 14,672 acres in the Canyon Ferry area, destroying some homes and triggering evacuations.

At the Fort Howes fires, which began Wednesday, nighttime burning has teased fire crews.

“We’ve had some really extreme nighttime fire weather,” said Jack Conner, fire information officer. Night humidity normally is in the 80 to 90 percent range, but it has been topping at 30 to 35 percent, he said.

Today, 10 percent of the fire cluster was contained. The Fort Howes flames destroyed three Forest Service buildings and a private vehicle, and threatened 20 homes.

At the Tobin fire near Ashland, crews made good weekend progress toward containment, projected for Thursday, information officer Maridel Merritt said. Like the Fort Howes fires, the Tobin was being fought by about 300 people and burned mostly Custer National Forest land.

“The firefighters have had long, hot days, and more long, hot days are predicted,” Merritt said.

At the Cave Gulch fire near Canyon Ferry Lake, heat and dryness hindered crews a day after a blowup forced them into a safety zone. Six-hundred firefighters were on the scene and about 380 members of the National Guard worked fire duty, mostly handling road closures and other security matters. The aerial attack Sunday included five helicopters.

Authorities today ended the closure of a major road, allowing people to return home.

The Cougar Creek fire burned nearly 3,000 acres in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest southwest of Philipsburg and was fought by 400 people.

Other fires in Montana included several overseen by the Miles City office of the Bureau of Land Management.

In the Line of Fire

In Carizzo, Ariz., the wildfire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation remained at 8,000 acres today, as firefighters continued building a line around the blaze.

Spokeswoman Chadeen Palmer said firefighters remained optimistic that calm winds and forecasted thunderstorms would help their efforts.

They had about 60 percent of the blaze contained and hoped to reach full containment by Tuesday.

Most of the new burning, she said, was inside the fire line in areas that had previously been unscathed.

About 500 people were working on the fire. No structures were threatened and no major injuries were reported.

ABCNEWS’s Judy Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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