As Conditions Improve, Firefighters Make Progress In Utah, California Wildfires

Tuesday, July 3rd 2007, 7:01 am
By: News On 6

WHITEROCKS, Utah (AP) _ Aided by light winds, firefighters made ``outstanding'' inroads Monday against a wildfire that has killed three people and burned more than 54 square miles.

About two dozen people in this town were allowed to return home as crews maintained fire lines near buildings in the sparsely populated area about 100 miles east of Salt Lake City.

But away from homes and other buildings, the strategy mostly was to let the fire burn dead trees in the Ashley National Forest, said Jay Esperance of the U.S. Forest Service.

``We've made outstanding progress,'' Esperance said. ``It is substantially more manageable.''

The blaze was 10 percent contained Monday evening.

Three people were killed Friday, the day the fire began. It has burned 35,000 acres, about one-third in the national forest and the rest on private and public lands and the Uintah and Ouray Indian reservations, said Marc Mullenix, an incident commander.

The cost so far: $1.6 million, half of it tied to helicopters and aircraft dropping water and retardant, he said.

About 300 people had to leave a handful of communities over the weekend, but Whiterocks residents were allowed to return.

On Monday, Marcus Perry, 23, said a lot of people don't want to leave their homes even when evacuation orders go out. His parents left for a few hours Saturday, then returned, he said.

``It's happened before,'' said Perry, a municipal firefighter working outside his parents' home, of wildfires in the area. ``Once you've seen one ... it's not too much to worry about.''

The fire, fed by dry pinon trees, knocked down at least 100 power poles and scorched roads.

At least a dozen structures have burned to the ground, mostly on Indian land, Mullenix said, but he didn't know whether they were homes or barns.

More than 700 firefighters were summoned Monday from across the country, up from 400 the day before, and more were expected Tuesday. The Utah National Guard sent 100 people to keep roads closed and assist in law enforcement away from the fire.

Temperatures were in the 90s on Monday, with humidity at less than 20 percent. The National Weather Service predicted temperatures near 100 later this week.

Thunderstorms are possible Thursday through Saturday, but they ``won't have much rain,'' and lightning could contribute to more wildfires, meteorologist Alex Tardy said.

The three who died were Tracy Houston, 43, his father George Houston, 63, and Roger Roberson, 75. The Houstons were buying hay from Roberson and tried to help him stop the fire by putting farm sprinklers in place Friday. Tracy Houston's 11-year-old son escaped.

In Southern California, firefighters also made progress Monday against wildfires from Santa Barbara to San Diego as the parched region headed into a heat wave.

More than 600 firefighters gained on a 482-acre fire in Los Padres National Forest northwest of Santa Barbara. The fire, which started Saturday evening, was 80 percent contained, authorities said, and full containment was expected Tuesday. The cause remained under investigation.

Two wildfires burned near the town of Julian, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego. The 110-acre fire was contained Monday, authorities said. The fire's origin and that of another fire that has been contained were considered suspicious, said Roxanne Provaznik of the state forestry department.

To the north in Kern County, a 12,400-acre fire _ or more than 19 square miles _ was expected to be fully contained Tuesday. Thirteen homes and 18 outbuildings were destroyed in the fire, which broke out June 24.

During the weekend, Los Angeles ended its driest rain-year on record with just 3.21 inches of precipitation downtown between July 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007. That's nearly 12 inches less than normal.

A fire that had burned 6 square miles in Montana just outside Yellowstone National Park was about 90 percent contained Monday night, the forest service said. Residents of West Yellowstone and guests at the Madison Arm Resort were allowed to return to the area, and the firefighting force of 500 had been scaled back to about 320.