Elite firefighting crew mobilizing to protect sequoias, historic log cabin


Friday, July 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



JOHNSONDALE, Calif. (AP) _ A wildfire burning on 58,500 acres near stands of ancient sequoia trees is creeping toward a log cabin built by sheepherders in the 1890s, prompting an effort by an elite firefighting crew to protect the structure.

The fire, which was 10 percent contained as of Thursday, was sparked Sunday by a Bakersfield woman's campfire, according to U.S. Forest Service officials. Peri Van Brunt, 45, could be arraigned Friday in U.S. District Court in Fresno on federal felony charges of unlawfully starting the fire.

The fire, raging near this hamlet 130 miles north or Los Angeles, has forced at least a thousand residents and vacationers to evacuate.

On Thursday, an elite ``hotshot'' crew cleared the area around the old Speas Cabin down to the subsoil, removing limbs on nearby trees and digging a fireline 300 yards up to a nearby road.

Their next task is to start a backfire along the fireline to head off the oncoming wildfire, part of an overall strategy to contain the western half of the blaze before it reaches homes and sequoias. If winds lie low, ``considerable containment'' was possible by Sunday, said Jim Paxon, spokesman for a the team of elite firefighters managing the blaze.

``I'd prefer to see the fire and be on the fire's edge. The fire's going, and the adrenaline's going and the time goes faster,'' said Gabe Donald, one of the team's chain saw handlers.

In this case, the decision was made to draw a line in the dusty soil far back from the edge, in part to protect the old log cabin.

``It's been here for 100 years. We think it's important for future generations to see,'' said Sue Exline, a spokeswoman for the firefighting management team.

So far, none of the area's sequoia stands have burned. Flames have come within a mile of the Packsaddle Grove and within two miles of the Trail of 100 Giants, a grove that includes some of the Earth's largest and oldest trees.

Individual sequoias can live more than 3,000 years and their thick trunks are resistant to fire. But the towering trees are vulnerable when flames reach the crowns of smaller trees and leap from there into the limbs of the sequoias.

Also at the fire on Thursday, an engine strike team leader with California's forestry department was hospitalized after suffering a slight stroke possibly triggered by type 2 diabetes, Paxon said. He declined to release the man's name or hometown.

Elsewhere:

_ In Reno, Nev., Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the Bush administration is not ready to waive major environmental laws to expedite logging and thus reduce wildfire threats. She said she was surprised that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., pushed an amendment through the Senate exempting a 700-acre logging project in his home state from some environmental laws. The measure passed the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday as part of a $28.8 billion defense supplemental appropriations bill.

_ A special investigation team went to Oregon's biggest wildfire to find out why 20 firefighters had to climb into their emergency shelters to escape being overrun by flames Wednesday. Eleven were treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation.