Fall Weather Carries Chilling Possibility Of Flare-Ups
Undated (AP) _ Weather turning cooler and more humid helped firefighters battle the remains of the blazes that have scorched more than 1,100 square miles in the West, but an advancing storm threatened to fan the flames today.
″Certainly it appears we’ve gotten the upper hand, but the stronger winds will really prove who’s got the stronger hand,″ said Ray Schaaf of the California Department of Forestry in Sacramento.
He said firefighters in Northern California were tackling more rugged country in their battle against about 160 forest and brush fires that remained uncontained among the 1,247 blazes since Aug. 28.
In Stanislaus National Forest, however, one of the largest fires was contained two weeks after lightning strikes sparked more than 50 blazes in tinder-dry underbrush that eventually merged.
By the time a 33-mile line around the fire was completed at 6 p.m. Sunday, 138,960 acres of grass, brush and trees had been blackened, said Dick Wisehart, a U.S. Forest Service fire information officer.
Elsewhere, crews Sunday dropped water from helicopters onto a 29,400-acre forest fire in Oregon, battled a forest fire in Southern California and protected ranches from a blaze in Idaho.
A storm system about 750 miles off the coast of Washington late Sunday was expected to move eastward, bringing winds up to 48 mph and a chance of light showers, said Ron Wagoner, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in San Francisco.
″This is what we call a major fall weather pattern, and the winds it brings could really cause firefighters some major problems,″ said Wagoner. No more than a few hundredths of an inch of rain is expected to follow the winds, he said.
Weekend lightning strikes ignited about a dozen small fires in California, including one that quickly grew to 50 acres, but Schaaf said all were quickly contained.
Officials let the number of firefighters on duty in Northern California drop 2,500 this weekend to 10,000, and Schaaf said thousands more could be released Tuesday and Wednesday barring flare-ups.
Once they go home, firefighters and evacuees must still cope with anguishing memories, mental health officials say.
″This is everything like being in a war and not knowing if on any given day you’re going to die,″ said Dr. Thomas Curtis, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who specializes in dealing with hazardous work environments.
Four firefighters have been killed in California since the rash of blazes began. The first three died in vehicular accidents, and on Friday, David Ross Erickson, a 34-year-old U.S. Forest Service engine foreman from Etna, Calif., died when a tree fell on him in the Stanislaus National Forest.
The top priority blazes in Northern California remain those in the Shasta, Trinity and Klamath national forests. The Klamath, where 42 fires remained uncontained Sunday, has consumed 139,638 acres. The Shasta-Trinity blazes, where 40 blazes are still uncontained, has blackened 76,739 acres.
Hundreds of firefighters headed home today from a stubborn 5,120-acre arson fire in the Cleveland National Forest on the Orange-Riverside county line in Southern California.
Firefighters encircled the blaze with a 13-mile firebreak Sunday evening, but there was still a chance flames could jump beyond fire lines so containment wasn’t expected until late morning, said Forest Service spokeswoman Susan Blankenbaker.
Ten firefighters have been hurt there, with the most serious injury a broken ankle.
Investigators have determined the fire, which started Wednesday, was the work of an arsonist, said Forest Service spokeswoman Carolyn Krupp, who would not elaborate.
Oregon’s biggest remaining blaze, the 29,400-acre Silver Complex was 25 percent contained Sunday night, said Forest Service spokesman Chuck Tonn.
About 1,700 people were on the fire lines Sunday night, including 607 men of the 7th Infantry Division from Fort Ord, Calif., fire information officer Doug Salyer said. Helicopters dropped water from 1,000-gallon buckets.
Temperatures in the mid-90s and strong afternoon winds spread Idaho’s latest forest fire to 350 acres Sunday. About 250 firefighters battled to protect three ranches from the blaze that started Saturday in the Nez Perce National Forest in rugged terrain along the Salmon River, said rangers’ spokeswoman Mary Zabinski.
She said the fire was kindled by embers from a 3,000-acre fire in the Payette National Forest that blew across the Salmon River. The 12-day-old Payette fire was being allowed to burn, as was a 1,700-acre fire that continued to burn out of control in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the northeast.