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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 California and four other 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.

The blackboard in the information center of the Boise fire center spelled out more problems in stark chalk letters: No air tankers. No lead planes. No helicopters.

"There have never been so many fires burning at the same time, and the fire behavior is so erratic because conditions are so dry and hot," said Arnold Hartigan, spokesman for the center.

"The result is a really disastrous fire situation," he said. "In 1985, it took us two months to commit all our resources; in 1986, it took us two weeks. In 1987, it's taken us two days."

Northern California, with its tinder-dry Sierra, had the lion's share of the action--896 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 17,500 acres, doubling its size in a single day, after being left to burn itself out, and fire officials said no effort was 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.

'At Our Limit'

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

The National Weather Service offered little hope of relief. Thunderstorms and high temperatures were expected to continue throughout the West for the next day or so, and meteorologists said a weak upper-level low pressure area would fan the flames with winds gusting to 30 m.p.h. or more.

In California, where more than 230 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.

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.

Acrid White Sky

At the 55-acre compound of the Boise Interagency Fire Center, smoke from Idaho's fires turned the crystalline sky an acrid white as the hamstrung staff choreographed the fire wars.

The center was established in 1965 to coordinate firefighting among federal and state agencies.

In the machine shop, firefighters' axes were sharpened. At the smoke jumpers' base, the last man out packed 70 pounds of equipment into his orange bag.

In a cool yellow bungalow blinking with computers, technicians watched green blips pulse across a screen, filling in a map of 11 Western states.

"Lightning strikes," explained branch manager Steve German.

The $7.5-million fire detection system uses mountaintop automatic weather stations, satellites and computers to report lightning strikes, wind conditions and other fire factors.

Fire managers using hand-held calculators can summon the data with the flick of a finger at a fire site.

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