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Weary Firefighters Fighting Big Blazes Say They’ve ‘Turned The Corner’

September 7, 1987

Undated (AP) _ Firefighters battling hundreds of blazes that closed campgrounds to Labor Day vacationers today and blackened an estimated 998 square miles in eight Western states say they have turned the corner on some of the biggest hotspots.

″I think we turned the corner yesterday. We had enough of a break in the weather that we were able to contain some of the smaller fires and medium size fires. That enables us to shift some resources to those that are still uncontrolled,″ assistant regional forester Ken Clark from Sacramento, Calif., said today on ABC’s ″Good Morning America.″

Three firefighters have been killed, all in vehicle accidents.

An estimated 22,000 firefighters battled more than 1,800 fires still burning in the West, according to Erik Martin of the Boise Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, which coordinates state and federal crews.

″We’ve basically used up all the firefighting resources in the nation,″ said Jim Torrence, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service.

Some blazes had to be left to burn as the focus of firefighting efforts narrowed to California, where more than 491,000 acres have been consumed since Aug. 28, and Oregon, with nearly 103,000 acres blackened.

″We’re around the corner,″ LoVae Pray Martines, an information officer for the California Department of Forestry, said Sunday.

Including about 35,000 acres that have burned in Idaho, plus smaller fires in Washington, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, the total acreage consumed by fire is about 639,000 acres, the worst toll in decades, officials said.

The last of 3,000 Oregon evacuees returned home Sunday. California fire officials announced today that 1,452 people evacuated from a village near Sonora would be allowed to return, leaving 5,248 evacuees in that state, down from 15,000, said Art Wirtz of the U.S. Forest Service.

Thick smoke was blamed for two airplane near-collisions over California on Saturday.

The Stanislaus National Forest, site of the state’s biggest fire, the 120,000-acre Paper Complex blaze, was among several national forests closed to hikers and campers for the holiday weekend.

That fire, west of Yosemite National Park, destroyed $102 million worth of timber, enough to build 10,000 three-bedroom homes, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dick Wisehart.

The Paper Complex was one of four major fires or clusters of fires that the more than 13,000 firefighters in the state were concentrating on, officials said.

A third firefighter, a California National Guardsman, was killed in a vehicle accident in the Klamath National Forest, said Dale Wierman at the joint federal-state fire information center in Sacramento. No details were released.

Earlier, one firefighter was killed and nine others were injured, none seriously, when a Douglas fir 4 feet across fell on their truck Saturday in the Six Rivers National Forest about 200 miles north of San Francisco. Onwe fireman was killed earlier last week when struck by a motorcycle.

Dozens more firefighters have been injured, and one was struck and killed by a motorcycle on the fire lines last week.

Damage estimates were incomplete, but in Oregon authorities estimated the loss at $318 million, with state firefighting costs running up to $2 million a day. Six-hundred Army soldiers were scheduled to arrive today.

Fire also has destroyed fields of marijuana, which is often planted by growers on federal land, said Jackson County, Ore., Sheriff C.W. Smith.

Calm and cooler weather helped firefighters Sunday in California, where about 200 fires raged out of control in dry forest and rangeland.

With more than 1,000 fires contained, ″now we can concentrate on the fewer big blazes that remain,″ said Mike Milosch, a spokesman for the joint state- federal fire information center in Sacramento, Calif.

Most of the fires were started by lightning in tinder-dry timber and brush.

Officials said there was no way to predict when the largest fires will be controlled, but they were increasingly optimistic Sunday with a third straight day of favorable weather and no return of strong winds predicted.

To keep up the spirits of weary firefighters, volunteers began putting out special newspapers full of thank-you messages, hints on beating stress, safety tips and even poetry.

A Pacific Southwest Airlines pilot said smoke and haze had reduced visibility to a quarter mile late Saturday when a private plane came within 200 feet of his jetliner 20 miles southest of Oakland, Calif., said Jeremy James, an airline spokesman.

The jet, carrying 27 passengers, had to take evasive action, James said. The Federal Aviation Administration was investigating.

Earlier Saturday, the pilot of a single-engine plane flying near Salinas, Calif., reported he came dangerously close to another aircraft because of the smoke, according to the National Weather Service in Redwood City.

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