National Guard to help fire crews

July 2, 2008 9:51:57 AM PDT
Weary crews battling wildfires across northern and central California are going to get help from the National Guard, the first time the state's troops have been called to ground-based firefighting duty since 1977. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday ordered 200 guardsmen to report for fire training to begin assisting on the fire lines early next week. The extra hands are expected to boost the nearly 19,000 personnel currently fighting the fires.

"I think that they all are doing a great job, but the danger is that our firefighters get stretched thin," the governor said. "A lot of them are working overtime, and they are staying up there for more than 12 hours, sometimes 24 hours, 36 hours. So we have to be very careful that they get enough sleep and they get enough rest."

The governor and the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, David Paulison, planned to visit Big Sur on Wednesday for a briefing on firefighting efforts in that hard-hit region.

The governor was expected to announce an executive order Wednesday that would waive replacement fees for drivers' licenses and other critical documents that fire victims may have lost in blazes. The order also aims to accelerate debris removal and repair environmental damage by "cutting red tape."

The governor's office said this is the first time since 1977 that California's National Guard troops have been sent to the fire lines. However, guard troops have helped in traffic control and other duties since then, and Air National Guard units have already been assisting firefighting efforts in California and elsewhere this summer.

Drought, high temperatures and lightning storms have contributed to more than 680 square miles of land being charred statewide in the past two weeks. The blazes have destroyed 60 homes and other buildings while threatening thousands more, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Federal fire managers predict an increase in severe wildfire activity in northern California through October due to unusually hot, dry weather and scant rain.

The National Interagency Fire Center, headquartered in Boise, Idaho, issued a 2008 Wildland Fire Outlook on Tuesday forecasting significant fire activity to increase or persist in California, as well as in parts of the western Great Basin in Nevada, the northern Rocky Mountains, Texas, and West Virginia.

The agency also upped its national preparedness level Tuesday to Level 5, its highest - a warning that there are major fires that have the potential to exhaust firefighting resources. It's the second earliest date the agency has reached Level 5 since 1990.

California has endured the worst of the fires so far this year, raging from the western edge of the Sierra Nevada to coastal mountains near Big Sur. They have created a smoky haze so stifling that some doctors in the San Joaquin Valley say their waiting rooms have been crowding with patients struggling to breathe.

In the Big Sur region of the Los Padres National Forest, about 200 people along a roughly 15-mile stretch of Highway 1 were ordered to leave their homes and businesses. Evacuation orders also remained in place for occupants of at least 75 homes who were forced to leave the region last week, as a blaze that has blackened 81 square miles of forest moved closer to them.

The Big Sur fire did not expand overnight, Los Padres National Forest spokeswoman Karen McKinley said Wednesday.

In Southern California, a fire in the southern extension of the Los Padres forest north of Santa Barbara also prompted mandatory evacuations as wind up to 35 mph pushed flames toward homes in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Officials said the fire had burned nearly 100 acres of heavy brush by Wednesday morning.

Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow said about 40 homes were evacuated.

In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, crews struggled to contain an 11,500-acre blaze there. Powerful gusts and choking smoke traveling up the steep canyons hampered their progress, and residents of neighboring towns were ordered to evacuate.

Even without the blazes, the farming towns and subdivisions dotting the valley are typically shrouded in a layer of smog during the summer. But airborne ash from the blazes caused such a spike in air pollution over the weekend that meteorologist Shawn Ferreria said it took his breath away.

"I went and bought a mask because my lungs were not happy with me," said Ferreria, a senior air quality specialist for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. "What we are experiencing is out of historical norms."

"Our waiting rooms are full of people with sore throats, itchy eyes and sniffles," said Kevin Hamilton, a respiratory therapist with Sequoia Community Health Center in Fresno.

Meanwhile, officials in Arizona said Wednesday the wildfire that forced the evacuation of about 120 people from the historic mining town of Crown King was no longer directly threatening the mountain community town or homes in nearby Horsethief Basin. But dry, windy weather means the threat to homes could return, they said.

The blaze near Crown King covered 7,200 acres of forest and brush and was just 5 percent contained, fire information officer Mike King said.


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