WIND-whipped wildfires threaten hundreds of rural homes near Yosemite, Yellowstone

Wednesday, August 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ More residents from rural communities near Yosemite National Park were chased from their homes as wind-whipped blazes made northern California a hot spot for Western wildfires.

More than 3,000 homes have been threatened and four have been destroyed since a fire in Mariposa County was discovered Saturday. A highway leading west into the park has been shut down for three days because of the 11,500-acre fire that officials believe was caused by arson.

Across the West, 42 major fires were burning Tuesday on a combined 350,000 acres _ an area roughly half the size of the state of Rhode Island, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

A wave of cool air and rain that moved into western Washington and Oregon helped firefighters gain ground on several fires in those states.

Near the mountain resort town of Leavenworth, Wash., where dozens of homes were evacuated earlier in the week, firefighters were able to encircle the blaze and extinguish hot spots in a 7,200-acre fire complex.

``With the fire laying down like it is, it gives firefighters the opportunity to get right up next to it and build fire lines,'' Forest Service spokesman Greg Thayer said Tuesday.

Most of the wildfires in Washington grew little if at all, said Vladimir Steblina of the Wenatchee National Forest. An exception was a 71,000-acre wildfire on the Colville Indian Reservation which jumped a fire line Tuesday and burned a narrow three-mile strip in about three hours, forcing the evacuation of about 50 homes.

The cool, wet weather in the Pacific Northwest was expected to continue Wednesday, but in California, Nevada and southern Idaho, firefighters were preparing for strong winds on still-dry ground.

Firefighters in Montana were also watching wind speeds, and officials warned residents in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park to prepare to evacuate if a 2,000-acre blaze near the tiny town of Emigrant continued to spread.

``Weather, fuels and topography are all working against us at this point,'' said Steve Frye, incident commander near Emigrant. The wind on Tuesday also doubled the size of a wildfire west of Glacier National Park to 2,300 acres.

Just west of Yosemite, 50 residents, many from the tiny communities of Priest and Coulterville, were ordered to evacuate as the 11,500-acre wildfire jumped containment lines. Four homes and four outbuildings have been destroyed, said Sheryl Tankersley, a spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

About 80 miles to the northwest, near San Andreas, a wildfire burning on 3,800 acres kept about 50 people in a Red Cross shelter set up in high school, said Annette Roessler, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.

Those in the shelters ``are very disheartened and very upset,'' said Betty Lentz, a Red Cross Volunteer and resident. ``People left their animals and homes behind.''

In all, nearly 29,000 firefighters and support personnel were working on Western fires Tuesday, and about 500 soldiers from Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., were expect to join the fire lines by the weekend. A second battalion was scheduled to start training Thursday.