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KERNVILLE, Calif. (AP) _ A camper was arrested for allegedly starting a 55,000-acre fire that has gobbled swaths of Sequoia National Park and threatened some of the most treasured trees in the nation’s forest system. The fire appears to have been set accidentally, authorities said.
Peri Van Brunt, 45, was arrested Wednesday and held on felony charges of unlawfully starting a fire. She was to be arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in Fresno, said Jim Paxon, spokesman for a national team of elite firefighters called in to manage the blaze.
Authorities tracked down Van Brunt, of Bakersfield, using witness descriptions. She allegedly went into a store at the Roads End Lodge in Johnsondale on Sunday saying she had been cooking hot dogs and her campfire had blown out of control, Forest Service officer Brian Adams said.
``She ran in the store and said, ’Help, I started a fire,‴ Adams said.
Van Brunt then fled with her dog as 30 mph winds blew the campfire into a conflagration, witnesses said. Minutes later, everyone at the small lodge also fled, and the entire place burned down, leaving only the chimney.
``I hope she is the right woman,″ said lodge owner Marcia Burford, 40, who had time to snatch only a laptop computer, her son’s guitar, money from the safe and a checkbook before evacuating. ``I feel sorry for her because I don’t think she realized what she did.″
Fires weren’t banned in the area _ a narrow canyon where the Kern River cuts through the Sierra foothills _ but the danger of fire has been considered extreme lately, and permits have been required.
Van Brunt had not obtained such a permit, Ranger Judy Schutza said.
Paxon said Van Brunt was cooperating with authorities. ``They are looking at the case being accidental rather than arson,″ he said.
Still, some campers said that if found guilty, Van Brunt should be punished. Nancy Cheeseman, 49, of Bakersfield, said she felt sorry for the woman, but she should have known about camper safety.
``Considering the dry season we’re having and all the fires we’ve had in the West, she should have known better,″ she said.
The fire, which started in Johnsondale, a hamlet about 130 miles north of Los Angeles, was 5 percent contained Wednesday, with temperatures expected to reach triple digits Thursday.
More than 1,000 firefighters and 12 air tankers battled the blaze, and some 1,000 campers and residents have fled. At least 10 structures have burned and about 200 homes were threatened.
Flames reached as close as a mile to the Packsaddle Grove, a stand of ancient, towering trees including the Packsaddle Giant, which has the fourth-largest circumference of any sequoia. Firefighters bulldozed a firebreak and set backfires to keep the wildfire away.
``The only way to stop fire is with fire,″ Paxon said.
The fire also reached within two miles of the Trail of 100 Giants, a grove of towering trees that are among the Earth’s largest and oldest.
Individual sequoias can live more than 3,200 years, their trunks enduring countless fires as part of natural cycles. But fires can kill them when flames reach the crowns of smaller trees and leap from there to the lower limbs of the sequoias.
Wildfires across the nation already have burned about 6.7 million acres, twice the annual average for recent years, according to Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That increases chances of erosion and devastating floods, he said.
Elsewhere in the West:
_ Oregon, flames overran a 20-person crew battling the state’s biggest wildfire Wednesday night, forcing them to deploy their emergency shelters. Seventeen of the firefighters were sent to a hospital for treatment of minor burns and smoke inhalation.
The largest fire in Oregon remained 40 percent contained late Wednesday. A total of 15 major fires, all started by lightning, were burning across 211,000 acres of Oregon, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
_ Dozens of people crowded into a memorial service on Wednesday for two pilots who died in an air tanker crash last week while working on a fire near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Officials expected the 4,400-acre blaze to be fully contained by Saturday.
_ In Washington, a 28,500-acre fire on the north shore of Lake Chelan was 35 percent contained Wednesday, but hot, dry weather was forecast and evacuation notices remained in effect for about 75 homes.
On the Net:
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov
American Forests: http://www.americanforests.org/
Sequoia National Park: http://www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm