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500 More Called to Fight Calif. Fire

July 25, 2002

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KERNVILLE, Calif. (AP) _ The wildfire raging near some of the nation’s ancient sequoias grew to 57,000 acres Thursday a day after authorities arrested a camper suspected of accidentally starting the blaze.

The fire was just 5 percent contained and hot weather was forecast Thursday. Another 500 firefighters were deployed alongside 1,000 already battling flames in and near the Giant Sequoia National Monument.

Helped by witness descriptions, authorities arrested Peri Van Brunt, 45, on Wednesday and held her for investigation of unlawfully starting a fire, a felony. Prosecutors said arraignment wasn’t expected until at least Friday.

The woman from nearby Bakersfield went into 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 fanned the fire out of control, witnesses said. Minutes later, everyone at the 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. ``I feel sorry for her because I don’t think she realized what she did.″

Campfires weren’t banned in the area but the fire danger has been considered extreme lately and permits were required. Rangers said Van Brunt had not obtained such a permit.

Jim Paxon, spokesman for a national team of elite firefighters called in to manage the blaze, said Van Brunt was cooperating with authorities.

``They are looking at the case being accidental rather than arson,″ he said.

Still, some campers said Van Brunt should be punished if she’s found guilty. ``Considering the dry season we’re having and all the fires we’ve had in the West, she should have known better,″ said Nancy Cheeseman, 49.

So far, none of the area’s majestic sequoia stands have burned. Flames have come within a mile of the Packsaddle Grove, a stand of ancient, towering trees including the Packsaddle Giant, which has the fourth-largest circumference of any sequoia.

The fire also came within two miles of the Trail of 100 Giants, a grove of trees that are among the Earth’s largest and oldest.

Individual sequoias can live more than 3,200 years; their thick trunks endure 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 limbs of the sequoias, high above the ground.

Elsewhere in the West:

_ Flames overran a 17-person crew battling Oregon’s biggest wildfire Wednesday night, forcing them to deploy their emergency shelters. Eleven were treated for of minor burns and smoke inhalation.

_ 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, 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

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