Dry Lightning Storms, Strong Winds Hamper Firefighting Efforts In The West

Wednesday, July 11th 2007, 6:39 am
By: News On 6

FRESNO, Calif (AP) _ Strong wind and lightning created a one-two punch for firefighters battling Western wildfires, whipping up old blazes and sparking new ones.

In California's Inyo National Forest, crews were busy trying to control new spot fires and gained little on a 35,000-acre wildfire, roughly 55 square miles, that remained about 80 percent contained through the day Tuesday, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Nancy Upham.

``We were hit with these thunderstorms, so there were a lot of winds in the area,'' Upham said. ``It did not jump the containment lines at all, but clearly we were not able to extend them any further.''

The storm system threatened to bring more lightning _ but little rain _ to the western Sierra through Thursday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Will Pi.

The Inyo fire, sparked by lightning on Friday, has destroyed six homes and closed trails in a popular wilderness area north of Mount Whitney.

Eleven firefighters have been injured there, including nine who were trapped in fire shelters Saturday while trying to help people evacuate the area. Six of those trapped were taken to a Fresno burn center Tuesday when they began feeling the effects of smoke and heat exposure, officials said.

The new flare-ups came as wildfires burned in at least seven states. Five of the nation's top-priority wildfires are in Utah.

Crews in central Utah are fighting the biggest wildfire in state history, which increased to 514 square miles Tuesday, authorities said. The fire about 120 miles south of Salt Lake City was 10 percent contained, and officials said they expect that containment figure to increase because the east and west flanks of the fire are improving.

Nevada's largest blaze _ near the Idaho line _ grew to about 114 square miles and was about half contained, Elko Interagency Dispatch Center Manager Bill Roach said.

The weather was cool and cloudy in the southwest corner of South Dakota, where crews expected to make significant progress on a wildfire near Hot Springs that killed a homeowner and destroyed 30 houses. The blaze had covered more than 15 square miles and was 20 percent contained.

``We're starting to gain a hold on this thing,'' Joe Lowe, state wildland fire suppression coordinator, told many of the 500 firefighters near Hot Springs on Tuesday. ``It's not over yet, but we're getting close.''

Wildfires kept the Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona closed, but officials said the threat to it was significantly reduced. At least eight fires were burning across Arizona.

In northern California, a 22,000-acre blaze, or 34 square miles, burned in Plumas National Forest. Residents of the nearby communities of Janesville and Milford have been asked to prepare to evacuate, though no order has been issued.

Welby Clark, who owns a mini-mart in Milford with her husband, said she was not concerned and said officials were doing a good job keeping residents informed.

``I think they've got a real good plan in place,'' Clark said. ``If it does come over, then we'll take some belongings and go.''

A smaller fire in nearby Shasta County prompted mandatory evacuations of 30 to 50 homes Tuesday afternoon as flames approached the town of Fall River Mills, said Shasta County Sheriff's Detective Marc St. Clair. No damage to structures or injuries had been reported.

Firefighters near the coast got a break in the Los Padres National Forest as cool temperatures and high humidity kept the 10,400-acre fire from spreading. The 16-square mile blaze was 37 percent contained by Tuesday evening.

``It settled a bit, it didn't burn actively as before, but it will take more to stop this fire,'' said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow. ``Dry lightning is still a concern.''