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Dense Smoke Hampers Efforts To Battle Blazes

September 8, 1987

Undated (AP) _ Thick smoke hampered efforts to fight fires that have charred more than 1,000 square miles in the West, but the weather and the Army cooperated, firefighters gained ground and most evacuees were back home today.

″Every day we’re getting a few more fires out,″ said Jack Wilson of the coordinating Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

About 22,000 firefighters were working in California, where more than 500,000 acres have burned, and Oregon, where fire has ravaged 109,000 acres, Wilson said Monday.

And out in the Pacific, officials of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park called for help from the mainland to help fight a brush and forest fire that had burned 10,000 acres. The fire broke out Saturday and was whipped out of control Monday by strong, gusty wind, said Jon Erickson, the park’s supervisor for public relations.

Wilson estimated 1,000 to 1,100 of the more than 1,800 fires started by lightning storms were under some degree of control.

In California, where 15,000 people have been evacuated since Aug. 28, all but about 1,000 were allowed back in their homes by Monday night, said Forest Service spokesman Brian Barrett.

A battalion of 650 infantrymen from the Fort Ord, Calif., took over mop-up work on a 10,000-acre cluster of fires in Oregon to allow firefighters to concentrate on two blazes that have charred 32,600 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest.

″What we are doing here is protecting the American people and the American homeland without M-16s and bayonets,″ said Capt. Andy Buchanan as busloads of soldiers donned yellow fire gear. ″This time we are doing it with hoes and shovels.″

Buchanan warned his men to beware of poison oak, rattlesnakes, scorpions and hidden marijuana fields, which he said are often booby-trapped.

Smoke was so thick over northern California and southern Oregon Monday that firefighters had to use flashlights and truck headlights to read maps during the day.

In California’s Tuolumne County, site of the state’s biggest fire, crews used mules to pack equipment because the smoke was too thick even for truck drivers to drive safely through it.

″People are starting to show the effects in health-related ways, with dizziness and disorientation,″ said John Garland of the Forest Service.

Smoke also grounded airplanes and helicopters equipped to drop water and fire retardants.

″With the smoke the way it is, I’ve hardly even seen the fire we’ve been fighting,″ said Lloyd Geraths of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Firefighting coordinators in Sacramento set a goal of containing all of California’s major fires by Sunday.

″But if we get a change bringing back lightning storms and erratic wind patterns, things could get out of hand again,″ said Mike Milosch of the Forest Service’s state command center.

Three firefighters have been killed in vehicle accidents and at least 35 have been injured, including an Oregon firefighter seriously burned Monday after a generator he was repairing exploded, authorities said.

Fire clusters covering more than 63,000 acres in California’s Shasta- Trinity national forests region became firefighters’ No. 1 priority, with over 3,000 on the lines, officials said.

About 4,000 firefighters remained at the Stanislaus forest west of Yosemite National Park, where the nation’s biggest blaze had consumed 120,000 acres. But it was downgraded to the No. 4 concern in California because of the diminished threat to towns and Yosemite.

A 55,000-acre cluster of fires in the Mendocino National Forest about 150 miles north of San Francisco was 88 percent contained. But the 12,000-acre Fouts fire raced largely unchecked through wilderness area near Snow Mountain to the south, according to California Department of Forestry spokesman Dave Drennan.

The top-priority fire in Oregon today was a blaze that has burned more than 22,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest 25 miles west of Grants Pass, said Ron DeHart, a spokesman for Oregon’s fire coordinating agency.

It is ″far and away the most dangerous situation we’ve had to fight. It’s the steepest, most rugged, most difficult to access,″ he said. ″Safety problems are exaggerated by the fact that firefighters are beat.″

In Idaho, a stubborn 10,500-acre blaze in the Sawtooth National Forest was brought under control Monday, while a 39-day-old fire continued to burn in a virtually inaccessible mountain area 29 miles east of Cascade.

One-hundred-acre fires were still burning in Washington and Wyoming today. Fires in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota had been contained.