Rain Helps California Firefighters

Wednesday, August 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RIDGECREST, Calif. (AP) — A bit of moisture helped firefighters make headway against a Sierra Nevada wildfire, but scores of lightning strikes elsewhere ignited more blazes across already scorched Western states.

One of the lightning fires started in Reno, Nev., and residents were urged to flee several subdivisions. Crews hoped to have it under control by late Wednesday.

Forty-two large fires had burned close to 660,000 acres in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In California's Sequoia National Forest, firefighters aided by rain increased the containment level of a 67,000-acre blaze — one of the region's largest and most destructive — from 15 percent to 40 percent, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Geri Adams said Tuesday night.

The fire, which started July 22, destroyed seven homes during the weekend in the isolated community of Kennedy Meadows, about 35 miles northwest of Ridgecrest.

``We had some precipitation last night that really helped the firefighters out, and our burnout operations were very successful,'' Adams said. ``The thunderstorms brought the humidity up and it's burning less quickly.''

But the weather didn't help everywhere. Most of the thunderstorms Tuesday provided no relief, and hot, dry weather was expected to continue for the next three or four days.

``We're not getting any rain at all. If it's raining, it's not hitting the ground,'' said Ed Waldapfel, information officer for the fire center.

It wasn't immediately clear how many new fires the lightning started, but the fire center said more than 100 small fires started just in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest.

``We're at the end of a La Nina weather event this year and everything is critically dry,'' Waldapfel said. ``It's just a very combustible situation.''

Firefighters were at work Wednesday in southwestern Reno, where the lightning fire burned through 2,500 acres during the night and damaged six structures. It was 75 percent contained by early Wednesday and full containment was expected during the afternoon, said Nevada Division of Forestry spokesman Steve Frady.

``It's highly visible all over town, with lots of smoke,'' Frady said.

Residents were urged to leave their homes in Reno's Huffaker, Lakeside, Dryden and Holcolmb areas.

Some 20,000 firefighters working across the West have begun receiving military reinforcements.

At Camp Pendleton, Calif., 500 Marines were receiving firefighting training to join crews on the lines of a blaze near the Idaho-Montana line by the end of the week.

Six hundred soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, arrived Tuesday in Boise, Idaho, for training to fight a 15,000-acre blaze in west-central Idaho's Payette National Forest.

``I don't think anybody believes it will be enjoyable, but it's something to help the country,'' said Army Spc. Keith Weiss, who was among the soldiers dispatched to Idaho.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt called out the National Guard late Tuesday to assist firefighters there. He requested 80 guardsmen to serve as volunteers on fire crews and also asked for seven bulldozers, two helicopters and other equipment.

In California, residents who had evacuated from Kennedy Meadows, where seven homes burned earlier in the week, began to return home.

The intensity of the flames and the firefighters' determination were evident at the end of a bumpy, four-mile drive into a canyon, where Roy Harmon's home was still standing. Scorched earth revealed how the fire burned up to the front of the house before it was stopped.

``When I got 100 yards into the canyon I thought, 'There's no way in hell anything can still be standing,''' said Harmon.

Sam and Joyce Taggart's home also was left standing, but only a row of unscathed poplar trees relieved the view of a devastated landscape.

``Looking at it just knocks me out,'' Sam Taggart said.


On the Net:

National Fire Information Center: http://www.nifc.gov/fireinfo/nfn.html