Calmer weather slows fires in Calif., Wash.

Friday, July 11th 2008, 3:40 pm
By: News 9


PARADISE, Calif. (AP) - Firefighters battling a raging wildfire in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California caught a break early Friday when a feared outbreak of strong winds did not immediately materialize. Residents in Washington state's Spokane Valley fled a fire that destroyed at least eight houses.

The winds in California were expected to be similar to ones that caused the blaze in Butte County to flare up earlier this week, destroying about 50 homes and forcing 10,000 residents to evacuate. But they were mild early Friday, CalFire spokesman Fred Orsborn said.

"They were getting little gusts, but nothing like they anticipated," Orsborn said. "They had a good night last night. It did not cross the river. The crews made significant progress on the south end of the fire."

Firefighters on Thursday positioned themselves on the banks of the Feather River opposite the town of Paradise, where a wildfire last month forced thousands of evacuations and destroyed 74 homes.

In Washington, firefighters renewed the battle at daybreak against a wildfire that erupted Thursday in a heavily wooded part of the Spokane Valley, destroying at least eight houses and forcing 200 residents to evacuate.

The National Weather Service said winds would be light Friday, compared to the 50 mph blasts Thursday that sent flames out of control. Forecasters expected high temperatures in the 70s and 80s.

No injuries have been reported.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she approved requests by Spokane and Ferry counties for emergency declarations to make state resources available to help fight the fires.

Some of the state's firefighters who had been working in California were returning to Washington, State Land Commissioner Doug Sutherland said.

Officials said heavy smoke and tree cover made it difficult to assess the damage from the suburban Spokane wildfire, which remained out of control. The cause of that blaze, which grew to nearly 2 square miles, was not immediately known.

In California, about 40 fires ignited by lightning storms have burned more than 76 square miles in Butte County alone in the past two weeks. By Thursday, about 15 of the fires were active.

Lloyd Knifong, 47, and his son Kyle, 20, were preparing to spend a sleepless night defending their Paradise home and several others lined on two sides by 70-foot pine trees. A fire engine was parked nearby and sprinklers were jerry-rigged to roofs.

"When we see it coming, I'm going to empty my pool and get everything nice and wet. Then we'll leave," Knifong said.

In Concow, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, firefighters intentionally burned brush to keep the flames away from houses. Evacuations orders remained in place, but some residents were allowed back on Thursday to check on their homes.

"I think my place is gone," said Rachael Davidson, 37. "When we left, there were flames all around."

Elsewhere, a 154-square-mile fire along the scenic Big Sur coast claimed some outbuildings at the historic Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. But the center's director, David Zimmerman, reported on its Web site Thursday evening that the complex had mostly survived.

Authorities had issued new mandatory evacuation orders late Wednesday for about 50 homes along a rugged road leading to the Zen center. But five monks decided to stay and make a stand against the fire. The blaze is about 41 percent contained and has destroyed at least 27 homes.

Farther south, a separate blaze in the Santa Ynez Mountains had blackened more than 15 square miles and was 75 percent contained. And at the southern tip of Sequoia National Forest, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, a 54-square-mile blaze was almost a third contained.

The National Guard has stepped in as crews across California struggle to contain hundreds of lightning-sparked fires that have burned more than 1,100 square miles and destroyed nearly 100 homes in the last three weeks. Some 1,460 fires had been contained by Thursday, but more than 320 still were active, authorities said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the Guard to the front lines and expects to call up more troops. On Thursday, he requested more resources from President Bush, and officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said they were reviewing the request.

"California is in the midst of battling unprecedented wildfires that have stretched our state's firefighting resources to their limit and placed thousands of Californians in immediate danger," the governor wrote.

In Washington, White House press secretary Dana Perino said that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other officials spoke with Schwarzenegger on Thursday night on further steps that might be taken. Approximately 80 percent of the federal firefighting force is now in California, Perino said.

Associated Press writer Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Wash., contributed to this report.