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Fires in Calif., Wash. Force Evacuations

July 21, 2003

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (AP) _ A wildfire destroyed four homes and forced about 250 people to flee their homes as it roared through 1,100 acres of rolling, oak-studded hills, authorities said.

The fire was 20 percent contained Sunday night and was threatening as many as 20 homes near the community of Santa Margarita, said Nena Portillo of the California Department of Forestry.

The fire, reported to authorities at about 3:15 p.m., was caused by a spark from an off-road vehicle, and the driver was cited for having a modified exhaust system, Portillo said.

The blaze erupted in brushy cattle country about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. It is the same area where a blaze destroyed a home last summer and nine homes and more than 106,000 acres of brush were burned by a wildfire in 1996.

Meanwhile, a lightning-sparked wildfire that scorched nearly 18,000 acres of brush in eastern San Diego County was 49 percent contained Sunday, fire officials said.

More than 2,000 firefighters were battling the fire, which began July 16. Full containment was expected Wednesday.

Elsewhere, a new wildfire raged Sunday through about 1,300 acres of timber and grasslands in eastern Washington state, burning some buildings and forcing people to flee their homes.

About 15 to 20 homes were evacuated and people were sent to an evacuation center at Cheney United Methodist Church, said Brett Walker of the state Department of Natural Resources.

The fire was burning about five miles southwest of Cheney at the intersection of Watt and Ritchey roads. Walker said the fire was 80 percent contained Sunday night.

The cause of the blaze, which began Sunday afternoon, was not known.

Fire Chief Bruce Holloway of Spokane County Fire District 3 said he did not know whether the burned structures were houses or outbuildings.

The Cheney fire was among several wildfires raging Sunday in central and eastern Washington amid dry conditions. Temperatures were in the 90s, and expected to reach as high as 103 degrees in the eastern part of the state on Monday.

There were no reports of injuries in any of the fires.

North of Winthrop, the Farewell Creek fire _ biggest in the state _ was estimated Sunday at 48,156 acres. The acreage was more than 12,000 acres higher than previously reported because of better mapping.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, park officials were opening the Mesa Verde National Park Monday for the first time since six days, even as firefighters continue battling a 2,600 acre wildfire.

All the park’s archaeological features will be open for tours, including Balcony House ruins near the spot where the fire started, park spokeswoman Kathy Crepinsek said.

A campground, shops and gas station at Morefield Village, about four miles inside the park’s main entrance, will remain closed indefinitely because firefighting operations are based there, Crepinsek said.

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