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Fires in Five States Termed a 'Nightmare'

September 03, 1987|TAMARA JONES and TED THACKREY JR. | Times Staff Writers

BOISE, Ida. — With no more crews or equipment to spare, the nation's Western firefighting center scrambled Wednesday to cope with the worst 48 hours in its history.

"It's kind of a nightmare," said Erik Martin, a fire information officer on loan to the Boise Interagency Fire Center, from Colorado.

More than 1,500 fires ignited by lightning striking an average of 50,000 times a day had been set in five Western states, and hotter days and higher winds were expected to make the situation even more critical by the weekend.

At least one firefighter had been killed and 45 were injured.

16,000 Battle Fires

Some 16,000 firefighters, including National Guardsmen and prison inmates, were battling the flames on all fronts. So many crews had been flown in--from points as distant as Alaska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and New York--that authorities estimated there were only about 1,000 professional firefighters available in the rest of the country.

Northern California, with its tinder-dry Sierra, had the lion's share of the action--910 fires, at least half of them still out of control.

Another 600 were reported in Oregon, and several were burning in Idaho, including a 2,600-acre blaze that forced 1,000 residents from their homes. Several small fires were burning in Nevada and Wyoming, including one near Yellowstone Park.

The biggest single blaze was one that began 32 days ago in the mountains of central Idaho. It burned 15,000 acres, doubling its size in a single day, after being left to burn itself out, and fire officials said no effort is being made to control it.

"Policy now is to let these fires alone in wilderness areas, because it is part of the normal ecosystem," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Samuel Harrison explained. "And in any case, I don't know where we would get the men and equipment to make any kind of fight.

"We're at our limit--and past it--already."

In California, where more than 225 square miles of timber and brushland have been laid waste by lightning-sparked fires since last Friday, nearly 12,000 firefighters--some of them from as far away as Maine and New York--were on the line.

Most in Remote Areas

Although most of the fires were in remote areas, posing little danger to structures or people, about 700 residents of Tuolumne City were ordered to leave their homes as a 50-foot-high wall of flame moved toward the eastern outskirts of their community, near the northern entrance to Yosemite National Park.

"We just moved up here, so it's a big shock," Renee Ohler, 17, said as she and her brother stood with several other spectators on a mountain road near the hamlet of Wards Ferry, watching as tree-eating flames rose up a ridge from a black, smoke-filled valley.

"It's really scary. We're just waiting to see if they're going to evacuate us."

Ohler and her brother Don, 22, moved to Tuolumne City from San Jose a month ago. They run a cafe in town.

Their home, and all the other dwellings in Tuolumne City, remained undamaged late Wednesday. But elsewhere in the state 20 structures, including four homes, had been destroyed in the fire epidemic, which also accounted for 52 injuries and was blamed for the death of one firefighter who was struck by a tourist's motorcycle.

At midday Wednesday the California Department of Forestry said 134,153 acres had been burned thus far in the state--an increase of 45,000 acres in less than 24 hours.

Fires were burning from the foothills of Mt. Palomar on the south to Happy Camp near the Oregon border and continuing on a broad arc through the Sierra and the Cascades. The largest blazes still uncontrolled were two in Klamath National Forest and another in Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite, as smaller fires burned in Tahoe and Shasta-Trinity national forests.

Tess Albin-Smith of a joint federal-state fire control center in Sacramento, said the Stanislaus National Forest fire was receiving priority Wednesday, based on its major threat to life, property and value of the natural resources.

But all the lines remained seriously undermanned.

"It's really hot out there and exhausting. They keep us out there for hours,' Ivan Smith, a firefighter-state prison inmate from the Baseline Camp in Jamestown, said as he took brief rest under a fire truck. "There's definitely a shortage of manpower out there.

In Klamath National Forest, fire information officer John Silvius said 168 fires, some having joined each other, burned some 14,000 acres of brush and timber, and predicted the battle there could take "a very, very long time--minimum a week."

'Short of People'

"We are extraordinarily short of people," Silvius said. "Some fires had as few as 15 firefighters on them. It's the best we can do."

In addition, he said, smoke was holding near the ground, reducing visibility and hampering air tankers and helicopter spotters.

In Oregon, about 600 lightning-caused fires burned about 28,000 acres of forest and rangeland, forcing evacuation of dozens of homes and destroying eight buildings.

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