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Fires Spread, Over 200,000 Acres Burned in California’s Dry Timberland

August 13, 1990

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) _ Lightning fires have burned more than 200,000 acres of California forest in the past week, and experts said Sunday it could get get ″much, much worse″ because of the lengthy drought.

In Yosemite National Park, off limits to tourists since Friday, two fires had burned more than 15,000 acres. Flames were within two miles of the Merced Grove, a stand of giant sequoias, and within two miles of the Badger Pass ski area.

Across the state, 14 fires were listed as major.

Fires also burned Sunday in parts of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington state, said the Boise Interagency Fire Center in Idaho; a fire in south-central Montana was controlled late Saturday. The national firefighting command center said nearly 20,000 firefighters were at work on fires that had covered 856,000 acres, more than half of that acreage in Alaska.

About 2,800 Army soldiers have begun firefighting training at bases in Washington state and Colorado. About 100 soldiers left Fort Lewis, Wash., on Sunday to relieve fatigued firefighters in Oregon. About 1,100 more were to follow Monday, said Maj. John Lundberg, a base spokesman.

California’s worst fire was in Tehama County about 200 miles north of Yosemite, where two fires not far apart had burned a total of 124,000 acres. In the Sequoia National Forest, southeast of Yosemite and northeast of Bakersfield, a fire had burned over 24,000 acres and firefighters worked to protect the communities of Kernville and Alta Sierra.

″The 200,000-acre figure for the state is probably pretty conservative,″ said Karen Terrill of the California Department of Forestry. ″What I hear the experts saying is that this could get to be much, much worse.″

The largest Tehama County fire, called the Campbell Complex, covered 112,000 acres.

″It’s probably going to become twice that,″ Chris Parker of the CDF said. ″What we’re seeing is the culmination of four years’ drought.″

The Campbell fire was considered only 40 percent contained. The Finley Lake fire six miles away was burning uncontrolled over 12,000 acres and was expected to join the bigger one, Terrill said. State Highway 36 in the fire area, east of Red Bluff, was closed Sunday.

″The Campbell is the most difficult to fight, is eating up the most acreage, and is in an area that hasn’t burned for about 50 years,″ she added. ″The Finley Lake fire is incredibly smoky.″

The Finley Lake fire by Sunday had destroyed 13 trailer homes, two houses and 27 outbuildings. A total of 127 structures have been consumed by fires since Aug. 3 across the state, including 66 of the 84 houses in the town of Foresta, at Yosemite.

People allowed back into Foresta on Sunday saw the black trunks of trees rising out of smoldering white ash.

A firefighter surveying the ruins drove a stake three feet into the earth, then pulled it out. The end was burned from ground temperatures of 300 degrees.

″To save this town, it would have taken a massive sprinker system,″ said Len McKenzie, chief naturalist at Yosemite.

Yosemite firefighters took special precautions to protect the sequoia trees, some of them 2,000 years old, in Merced Grove. This included cleaning up forest debris in the area and treating the trees with a fire retardant.

But the thick-barked sequoias have lived through other fires, Terrill noted, and probably could make it easily through another.

Elsewhere in Yosemite, ″there’s a degree of peacefulness, if you are not caught up in the frantic business of firefighting,″ said Jeff Nicholas, 39, curator of Yosemite’s Ansel Adams photo gallery.

″This is the way it should be, quite and peaceful, without the sound of tour buses,″ he said. The park normally has up to 25,000 tourists visiting on summer weekends.

The Yosemite fires were about 10 miles west of Yosemite Valley, the heavily visited site of Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls.

In 1987, summer fires in California burned more than 750,000 acres.

″Last week, we were saying this would be nothing like 1987. There was very little humidity then,″ Terrill said Sunday. ″But it also wasn’t the fourth year of drought in the state then.″

Lightning strikes - almost 24,000 were counted by detection equipment from Aug. 3 through the weekend - were believed to have caused all of the California fires.

Elsewhere, firefighters appeared to be winning the battle Sunday against five major groups of lightning-caused fires that have burned across 119,420 acres of remote eastern Oregon forest and range land.

The town of Burns, Ore., was about four miles from the Pine Springs Basin Complex of fires that had burned 73,700 acres. The blaze was 75 percent contained Sunday morning and full containment was expected by Monday evening.

Firefighters took advantage of a break in the hot, dry weather and contained Idaho’s larger range fires, including the 65,000-acre Thorn Creek blaze that damaged several outbuildings.

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