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Lightning-Sparked Brush Fires Push Crews to Edge

September 01, 1987|From Times Wire Services

At least two dozen people were injured, five houses and three fire trucks were destroyed and nearly 7,000 acres of timber and brushland were blackened Monday as lightning sparked more than 400 fires, nearly overwhelming firefighting forces throughout California.

Maryn Pitt, a California Department of Forestry assistant director, said more than 2,600 lightning strikes in 11 hours Sunday touched off the series of fires that continued to burn Monday, with more lightning and winds expected.

Officials at the Forestry Department's Emergency Command Center in Sacramento said the fires had inflicted injuries on 24 firefighters, including the 18 caught in a 300-acre fire raging out of control in remote, northeastern Modoc County. A semicontrolled, 350-acre blaze in Placer and Nevada counties near Auburn destroyed five residences, they said.

Federal, state and local fire agencies were spread so thin, Pitt said, that no one was fighting many of the smallest fires, and undersized forces were falling back to roads and waiting for blazes to burn to them in other cases.

"We're really tapped. We just don't have any more resources to commit at this time," Pitt said.

The Forestry Department's ability to halt new fires was crippled because 159 hand crews, or 78% of its total, and 253 engines, or 55% of the total, were already committed to existing blazes. Within the various national forests, most of the U.S. Forest Service forces were also committed. About 34 state and federal air tankers, dozens of helicopters and more than 26 bulldozers were also working the fires.

Additional federal firefighters were expected to begin arriving today, Pitt said, as authorities continue searching for additional lightning-caused fires that they fear are smoldering undetected in dry forests and brush.

"The big concern is that this weather pattern that caused the lightning will continue until Wednesday, then will change and bring in breezes, but that will just help to fuel the spread of fires," she said.

Thunderstorms in some cases forced huge volumes of air toward the ground, causing fires to virtually explode, she said.

The storms, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada and in far Northern California, hit hardest in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, where 75 fires have burned more than 300 acres.

In the Stanislaus National Forest, 41 fires have burned more than 2,000 acres.

"I guess we probably had more lightning than anyone else did," Ranger Dick Wisehart said.

A 500-acre fire remained out of control five miles west of Yosemite National Park on the north side of the Merced River, but no homes were threatened, Wisehart added.

In the southern Sierra, a fire in brush and rocky terrain eight miles northeast of Lake Isabella in Kern County had burned 1,000 acres, said Tom Kuekes, a spokesman for Sequoia National Forest.

In Six Rivers National Forest, three fires had burned an unknown number of acres, and Klamath National Forest reported 53 fires and more than 175 acres burned. Elsewhere, fires reported by county and acreage burned were Modoc, 8 and less than 50 acres; Lassen, 36, less than 50 acres; Mendocino, 5, less than 10 acres; Plumas, 45, about 600 acres; Tahoe, 40, 75 acres; El Dorado, 11, less than 10 acres, and Sierra, 41, about 1,200 acres.

In the Modoc County blaze, the injured firefighters, many of whom scrambled under the special heat-resistant blankets they carry, were treated at hospitals, fire officials said.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, Gail Nerseth, a dispatcher at a communications center used by the San Bernardino National Forest, Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service said there had been too many fires in her area to maintain an accurate count.

"We've just had a lot of them," she said. "We have people in airplanes and helicopters everywhere trying to get people to them."

The largest blaze blackened about 80 acres in the Oak Springs area near Newhall, briefly threatening several expensive homes. But no structures were damaged, and Nerseth said most of the fires were in the one- to four-acre range.

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