11,000 Flee as California Blazes Rage : 13,000 Fight Fires; Governor Declares State of Emergency

September 04, 1987|IMBERT MATTHEE and TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writers

TUOLUMNE CITY, Calif. — Rising wind brought additional miseries Thursday for 13,000 firefighters battling the plague of brush and timber blazes that have blackened more than 300,000 acres in California, driving 11,000 people from their homes and straining reserves of manpower and equipment to the limit.

Fires were also burning out of control in six other Western states, and officials at the Boise Interagency Fire Center in Idaho called the situation "a disaster . . . the worst we've ever seen." California was at the top of the disaster roll.

Gov. George Deukmejian declared a state of emergency in 22 counties struck by the epidemic of lighting-caused fires, and the state's top fire official predicted that it would be "several more days" before firefighters bring the major blazes under control.

Larger Than Entire City

By Thursday afternoon, the 1,275 fires started since last Friday by 9,240 lightning strikes from the Oregon line to the Mojave Desert had scorched 334,533 acres of brush and timber--an area larger than the city of Los Angeles.

In briefing the governor, California Department of Forestry Director Gerald Partain predicted that one of those clusters of fires--the Tuolumne County blazes near the northern entrance to Yosemite National Park--"could go as high as 200,000 to 300,000 acres" before it is contained.

"We're looking at no estimated time of containment of any of these major fires. We're still looking several days ahead" before they are controlled, Partain said.

3 Homes, 1 Trailer Lost

An estimated 7,000 people were evacuated Wednesday and Thursday from about 2,000 homes in Tuolumne City, Groveland, Big Oak Flat and at least four other Tuolumne County communities, but only three homes and one trailer were lost as the fires swept around those communities into uninhabited land near the western boundary of Yosemite.

Another 3,000 to 4,000 were evacuated from homes in Lassen, Mendocino, Siskiyou and Trinity counties Wednesday and Thursday, but officials reported only one other fire injury and 12 homes destroyed throughout the state, bringing the statewide total since Friday to one fatality, 52 injuries and 32 homes destroyed.

About 600 firefighters were creating fire breaks south and east of Tuolumne City, where the 25,000-acre Paper-Cabin fire, fed by northeasterly winds, threatened residences and surrounding subdivisions, U.S. Forest Service officials said. Smoke from the fires reduced visibility in the area to less than a mile.

Nine buildings, including four mountain cabins and several ranch structures, were destroyed in the Paper-Cabin fire, prompting state and federal officials to pronounce the area "the No. 1 firefighting priority in the nation," said Irl Everest, spokesman for the Incident Command System, the California firefighting emergency coordinating body.

California Air National Guard C-130 airplanes were used Wednesday night to protect homes. The planes dropped fire-retarding chemicals on the blazes approaching Tuolumne City from the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, Everest said.

"They might not be able to stop it here," Everest said, pointing to distant flames in the smoke-filled Tuolumne River canyon. "There will be a threat to Tuolumne City until we control the fire in the canyon."

Everest said it could be several days before the blazes are contained. The steep canyon walls prevent the fire crews from fighting the flames there.

"If you were to try to fight it down there, you would never know what is below you," he said. "It would endanger the crews' lives."

Pacific Bell urged customers to refrain from placing calls to Tuolumne, Stanislaus or Siskiyou counties except in emergencies because lines were overloaded.

Department of Forestry spokeswoman Robyn Lawton said changes in the weather Thursday were a mix of good and bad news.

The good news, she said, was that there had been only a handful of lightning strikes since late Wednesday, which meant no additional fires. The bad news was that winds were picking up, making it harder to control the existing blazes, while humidity remained below normal and temperatures were up.

"We're trading one evil for another," she said.

Three other major fires merged Wednesday night to create a 49,000-acre blaze 20 miles southeast of Sonora. That fire crossed several miles of California 120 after authorities closed 40 miles of that highway between Moccasin and Crane Flat, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dick Wisehart said.

'Squirrelly Fire'

"This is a real squirrelly fire," said George West, 46, a firefighter from New Mexico whose crew was creating backfires and bulldozer lines to protect livestock and ranch barns four miles east of Tuolumne. "It is just a heck of a lot of little fires. When you think you're getting something accomplished, suddenly it blows up somewhere else and goes all over the place."

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