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California Flames Threaten Animal Shelter, Giant Sequoias

October 18, 1988

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Lions stopped roaring Monday as flames threatened a shelter for abandoned exotic animals, as well as a home for disturbed children, and a second blaze headed toward ancient trees in Sequoia National Park as fires burned more than 5,900 acres in California.

″If the wind picks up it could flare up into a 40-foot sheet of fire and a fireball could roll over us without batting an eyelid,″ said Martine Colette, spokeswoman for Wildlife Waystation, the animal shelter in Angeles National Forest’s Little Tujunga Canyon area 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Several blazes, including a 1,500-acre fire burning near trees up to 2,700 years old in Sequoia, erupted during the weekend when California was blasted with temperatures near 100 degrees in some areas and dry desert wind gusting to 30 mph.

National Weather Service meteorologist Mark McKinley said southern California will experience a cooling trend in the next couple of days but, with 25 mph mountain wind, conditions wouldn’t change much for firefighters until Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Marilyn Hartley said the 3,100-acre Divide brush fire was 1 1/2 miles from Wildlife Waystation, but Colette insisted flames pushed to within three-quarters of a mile. The shelter is home to more than 1,000 creatures, including tigers, giraffes and a wide variety of other abandoned exotic pets, plus wild animals that wandered into residential neighborhoods.

″We will have to make our stand here,″ Colette said. ″It would not be feasible to evacuate the animals. ... The animals are extremely quiet. The lions stopped roaring and the coyotes stopped howling. They can smell the fire.″

The refuge was expected to remain safe as long as winds didn’t whip up during the night, Waystation vice president Jan Brown said late Monday.

The fire, which was 20 percent contained, moved toward and then past about seven homes in the Little Tujunga Canyon area north of Sylmar and northeast of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. There was no damage but most of the families evacuated, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s Sgt. Guy Gutierrez.

Officials at the Waystation and at Hathaway Childrens Services, a home for 125 emotionally disturbed children in Little Tujunga Canyon, also were told they might need to evacuate if the fire got closer, the sergeant said.

Officials estimated that blaze will be surrounded by fire lines by Wednesday evening and extinguished two days later, Forest Service spokeswoman Kim Vanderhaar said. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

More than 600 firefighters were aided by nine air tankers and three helicopters that began dropping water and fire-retardant chemicals at dawn Monday as the blaze burned dry brush in inaccessible mountainous terrain, said Los Angeles County firefighter Stan Pearson.

Three men were initially suspected of starting the fire with an illegal campfire, a felony punishable by up to six years in prison. But the men were released Monday, said Deputy Hal Grant, because, ″It appears a 10-year-old boy has admitted to it.″

In Sequoia National Park, 600 firefighters battled to protect the 3-square- mile Giant Forest, a grove of trees considered the largest living things on Earth, said Forest Service spokeswoman Michele Case.

Flames ″are right now at the edge of the forest,″ but a successful backfire broadened a buffer zone around the grove, she said.

The majestic trees can survive fires because their thick bark can withstand considerable heat and flame, but ″a sequoia tree is fire-resistant, not fireproof,″ Case said.

Authorities also were concerned about a restaurant, hotel, cabins and gas station about three miles from the flames, she added.

Case said the fire broke out Sunday morning at a camping area on the middle fork of the Kaweah River, about 30 miles northeast of Visalia and 175 miles north of Los Angeles. One hundred campers left so a fire camp could be established, she added.

The fire was blamed on a careless camper or fisherman because there was no lightning in the area at the time, Case said.

Firefighters contained a brush fire Monday that burned more than 800 acres in Riverside County near Hemet, said Cheri Hill, a spokeswoman for the California Division of Forestry.

A 300-acre brush fire burned out of control near U.S. 95 about 20 miles north of Blythe near the Arizona border, Hill said. It threatened some homes Sunday but posed no danger to dwellings Monday, she added.

Hill said 15 small brush fires that started Sunday throughout Riverside County were extinguished. Some were arson, others were caused by campfires and one was ignited by a motorcycle’s hot exhaust pipe, she said.

Two more weekend fires erupted in the mountainous eastern section of the Angeles National Forest. One destroyed a house near the Mount Baldy ski resort.

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