Fire Crews "Turn Corner" Against CA Blazes

Sunday, July 13th 2008, 8:11 am
By: News 9

Firefighters made progress Saturday on a wildfire that destroyed part of a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills in northern California, one of the hundreds of blazes that continue to char huge swaths of the state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday ordered 2,000 more National Guard troops to join the 400 already on firefighting duty. Australia, Canada, Greece, Mexico and New Zealand are also sending firefighters and equipment, federal officials said.

"We are stretched thin, and our firefighters are exhausted," Schwarzenegger said. "The fire season as we've known it is pretty much over. ... Now we have fire season all year round."

Federal officials said they would send more equipment and personnel to California. The federal government has committed $100 million and 80 percent of its firefighting resources to California, said Glen Cannon, an assistant administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Fire crews made progress Saturday in Butte County, north of Sacramento, as they fought to contain a blaze that destroyed about 50 homes and apparently killed one person in Concow, a rural community in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

"For the first time, we've really turned the corner," Kim Sone, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, said Saturday. "There's more resources staffing the fire, and the weather has changed. We're getting good relative humidity and the winds are subsiding."

Officials said that blaze was about 40 percent contained, mostly in areas that had been at highest risk to more homes.

On Friday night, officials downgraded the evacuation order that had affected about 10,000 residents since Tuesday and told people they could return home as long as they remained ready to leave on short notice.

Officials said Saturday that about 300 homes were still threatened around the town of Paradise, near Concow, but that was down markedly from 3,800 homes a day earlier. A separate blaze last month destroyed more than 70 homes in Paradise.

Investigators believe the Concow fire killed at least one resident, although an autopsy will be needed to confirm the cause of death. The burned body was found in the smoldering ruins of one of several homes destroyed by the fire Tuesday night.

Concow, where 50 homes were destroyed, was under a mandatory evacuation order when flames approached early Tuesday, "but unfortunately not everyone chose to leave and you cannot force them to," said Sgt. Steven Pelton, a Butte County deputy coroner-sheriff. "This appears to be one of those people."

The fire melted beer bottles, jars and windows into puddles of glass. Cans of food had swelled then exploded from the heat. Crews also found the remains of at least two dogs.

State officials said this fire season has seen the most fires at one time in recorded California history. Aided by unusually dry, hot weather, wildfires have burned more than 1,100 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes statewide since a lightning storm ignited 1,460 separate blazes on June 21. By Friday, more than 320 fires still were active, state officials said.

Despite the scope of the wildfires, the only other deaths have been a volunteer firefighter who collapsed on the fire line and an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack while voluntarily leaving her home.

A separate blaze in Santa Barbara County on the central coast that prompted mass evacuations last weekend was 80 percent contained after blackening more than 15 square miles. And at the southern tip of Sequoia National Forest, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, a 54-square-mile blaze was almost one-third contained.

A letup in the wind aided firefighters in eastern Washington state battling a wildfire that erupted Thursday in a heavily wooded part of the Spokane Valley. It destroyed at least 13 houses and forced 200 residents to evacuate. No injuries have been reported. The cause of the suburban Spokane fire, which grew to nearly 2 square miles, was not immediately known.

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