California firefighters pick their battles

July 1, 2008 9:09:58 AM PDT
Cool, damp weather returned Tuesday to the area around a huge wildfire close to Big Sur, one of hundreds of blazes firefighters have struggled to contain because of hot weather, rough terrain and lightning storms. The widespread flames force firefighters to allocate their resources carefully: they focus on communities in the path of flames, allowing other blazes to chew through unpopulated forest land.

"It's like eating an elephant - you've got to eat it one bite at a time," said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "We have to take a step back, figure out where the best place is to make a stand and sometimes wait for the fire to come to us in those situations."

This year is extraordinary for the number of active fires, Kirchner said. The weekend of June 21 had 1,200 fires - a number Forest Service officials said appeared to be an all-time record in California.

On Monday, the Forest Service put the figure at about 600, attributing the reduction to its tactic of attacking small fires first, and to significant assistance from other states and Canada.

However, state officials counted more than 1,000 ongoing blazes. The source of the discrepancy was apparently a different counting method.

Along the Pacific, the National Weather Service said patchy fog early Tuesday blanketed the area around the blaze in Monterey County that has blackened nearly 62 square miles near the town of Big Sur. The fire was just 3 percent contained as of late Monday, a day that began with similar conditions.

Firefighters have poured personnel and equipment into the area to ensure the fire does not reach the town, said John Ahlman, a Los Padres National Forest spokesman.

The weather service said Tuesday morning also brought relatively light wind to regions of Northern California where harsh terrain has hampered efforts to battle a blaze in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Temperatures were expected to return to the 80s in the afternoon.

Crews managed to increase their containment of the forest's 55-square-mile fire to 36 percent by Monday evening. A smaller blaze in the nearby Trinity Alps Wilderness, a popular summer hiking spot, was only 2 percent contained after charring more than 4 square acres.

Kirchner said wildfires have not been blamed for any significant injuries to civilians or firefighters even though some 570 square miles of land have burned in California this season. There were a few minor injuries among firefighters working on the Shasta-Trinity fire.

"It is extremely steep, very rugged territory, and there are a lot of injuries, twisting ankles, slipping on hills," Kirchner said. Burning debris is "rolling downhill right past your containment line. It's very complicated, difficult, dirty firefighting work."

Two wildfires choked parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills, sending up plumes of smoke that darkened patches of the 100-mile stretch along the Interstate 80 corridor between Sacramento and Reno.

Officials said there was a possibility of rain in far northern California this week. But the changing weather pattern also could bring new lightning and high wind, said John Heil, a Forest Service spokesman.

Even a modest rain storm - highly unusual in July - would do little to diminish the likelihood of a long, tough fire season, Heil said.

"Unless it rains, and we get some really good rainfall, you can pretty much expect it to be here right through October," he said.

Elsewhere, a wildfire that forced the evacuation of dozens of residents in a northern Arizona community had charred about 5,300 acres - or more than 2 square miles - as of Tuesday morning. Prescott National Forest spokeswoman Debbie Maneely said crews had not been able to control any of the blaze since it broke out late Saturday near the mountain community of Crown King.

Three houses and four other buildings had been destroyed, Maneely said Monday.


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