Calif. Wildfires Kill 1; More Help Coming

Saturday, July 12th 2008, 7:41 am
By: News 9

One person was found dead inside a burned-out house Friday after a wind-fueled wildfire swept through a rural community in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a rare human casualty among the hundreds of blazes that have tormented the state for weeks.

Investigators believe the person died in the fire in the town of Concow, but they will conduct an autopsy on the burned body to confirm the cause of death, said Sgt. Steven Pelton, the county's deputy coroner-sheriff.

The town had been evacuated when the blaze approached early Tuesday, "but unfortunately not everyone chose to leave and you cannot force them to," Pelton said. "This appears to be one of those people."

A complex of blazes in Butte County already has destroyed 50 homes in Concow and forced some 10,000 residents of the nearby town of Paradise to flee.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ordered an additional 2,000 National Guard troops to help firefighting efforts around the state. Schwarzenegger also said that help was on the way from Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

"We are stretched thin, and our firefighters are exhausted," Schwarzenegger said Friday in Los Angeles.

Firefighters battling the out-of-control fires in the Sierra Nevada foothills thought they had caught a break Friday when strong winds they feared could blow hot embers across fire lines toward thousands of homes did not immediately materialize. The northeast winds forecast for the morning were expected to be similar to those that caused the fire to flare up earlier this week.

The Butte County fires have charred more than 76 square miles over the past two weeks and was about 55 percent contained.

Officials have said this unprecedented fire season, plagued by drought and high temperatures, has seen the most fires burning at any one time in recorded California history. Most of the blazes began during a massive June 21 lightning storm that sparked 800 wildfires across Northern California.

President George W. Bush planned a visit next week to survey the Golden State's wildfires, which have burned more than 1,100 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes.

Federal officials said Friday that they would send more equipment and personnel to California in response to Schwarzenegger's request for additional aid.

"We've put a significant amount of resources there, and we'll continue to add resources until we bring the fires under control," Glen Cannon, an assistant administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said during a conference call with reporters.

During a separate fire in Paradise last month, an elderly woman died after suffering a heart attack while voluntarily leaving her home. On July 2, a volunteer firefighter collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County and died at a hospital a day later.

Fire officials estimate about 320 fires were still burning in the state this week.

About 400 guardsmen were called in earlier this month, and more than half of them already are on the fire lines. The governor's office has said it's the first time in more than 30 years that the California National Guard has been deployed for ground-based firefighting.

The governor's office said the additional 2,000 Guard troops Schwarzenegger ordered will be trained and deployed over the next few months.

In nearby Washington state, a letup in the wind aided firefighters 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.

That fire and others prompted Gov. Christine Gregoire to declare a state of emergency across all of Washington on Friday. That freed equipment, firefighters and funding for efforts to quench the flames.

(© MMVIII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)