WILDFIRES burn in three western states, fanning fears of another damaging fire season

Wednesday, May 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SUSANVILLE, Calif. (AP) _ Flames from a 4,100-acre wildfire crept to within 30 feet of homes and coated the town of Susanville with dark soot, giving firefighters an unwelcome taste of what could be ahead for the western fire season.

``I haven't seen dry conditions like this since 1977,'' said Bob Garate, a former firefighter whose home was threatened by the blaze about 80 miles northwest of Reno, Nev. ``We're in for a long, hard summer.''

Firefighters in northern California had the Susanville blaze about 50 percent contained early Wednesday. Elsewhere, firefighters battled a 6,500-acre wildland near Nevada's Pyramid Lake. And in New Mexico, rugged terrain hampered firefighters in the Guadalupe Mountains, where a burning log and strong wind swept a 2,000-acre fire across containment lines.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Tuesday that the fire potential in the West was already shaping up as one of the worst in decades.

``This is the second driest year in the last 100 years in the Pacific Northwest,'' Norton said during a Denver news conference for an interagency task force formed after the devastating Los Alamos, N.M., wildfire left more than 400 families homeless last year.

Norton said millions of federal acres needed to be cleared of underbrush that can fuel wildfires and that has built up because of policies limiting prescribed burns. She said the government would work with local agencies over the next month to set up coordinators to get it done.

``This problem has been 100 years in its development. This is not a problem that will be solved quickly,'' she said.

Last year was the worst for fires in a half-century, with 93,000 wildfires damaging 7.3 million acres.

This year, the federal government increased firefighting reserves by $486 million to $1.8 billion, and it plans to hire 3,600 more firefighters this year, for a total of 9,000.

The Susanville fire, expected to cost more than $2 million to fight, was sparked Sunday by a man shooting targets on private timberland, said state forestry spokeswoman Wendy McIntosh.

The flames reached the city limits, coming as close as 30 feet to some homes, and forced a small hospital and 140 residents to evacuate. The residents were allowed to return Tuesday. Lassen Community Hospital evacuated 25 patients Monday to ease their fears after the fire burned with a quarter mile of the facility, said executive assistant Laura Lang.

Fire officials were cautiously optimistic that the fire would not spread much further.

``Every report is that the situation looks very good, but I wouldn't say the threat to Susanville is over yet,'' said fire information officer Steve Gasaway. ``We're still concerned about winds and the possibility the fire could escape our lines.''

The man accused of sparking the blaze was cited for causing a fire and letting it escape, officials said.