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375,000 Acres Ablaze in California : Fires Imperil Yosemite, Lassen Parks

September 06, 1987|From Associated Press

The lightning strikes that ignited the West tapered off Friday but tired firefighters had their hands full with nearly half a million acres of brush and forest fires, including the first blaze within Yosemite National Park.

Nearly 20,000 firefighters, some from as far away as the East Coast, were trying to contain the worst rash of fires in a decade. Most of the scorched earth was in California, where 375,000 acres were involved, and Oregon, where the total reached 75,000 acres.

"We've got a lot of tired people out in the hills," said Ray Naddy, a spokesman for firefighters in Oregon.

Large fires in California included 100,000 acres in Tuolumne County near Yosemite National Park, 22,000 acres in Lassen National Park, and a complex of 17 fires covering 30,000 acres in Mendocino and Lake counties.

About 15,000 people had been evacuated from homes, most of them in Tuolomne County.

The fire in Yosemite National Park, which started Thursday, had grown to 100 acres Friday afternoon. The major battle, however, involved a 90,000-acre fire which was burning toward the park in the vicinity of Tuolumne City.

"New fires are cropping up, the sleepers that have been smoldering, and then the wind comes along and we've got a fire," said Jerry Ahlstrom of the statewide fire information center, set up by the California Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighters also contended with 13,000 acres ablaze in Idaho, but let an 18,000-acre fire burn by itself in a wilderness area near Cascade. Smaller fires were burning in Washington, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and Arizona.

No rain was in sight for most of the affected area over the Labor Day weekend, and authorities saw a long haul ahead.

"They will be fighting some of them until the snow flies," George Leonard, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said in Boise.

"This is one of the worst fire situations that we have had in more than 30 years in these states," Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson told a news conference in Washington.

Robertson said that unless the situation improves, the Forest Service will provide a one-day training course for 1,000 Army troops stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and send them into the battle.

Dick Thomas, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management in Phoenix, said Friday that the federal agency was giving physical examinations and crash courses in firefighting to secretaries, surveyors and other employees to join the battle in California.

The fires destroyed millions of board feet of prime timber and closed campgrounds for the Labor Day weekend.

"Currently, the number of fire starts are slowing down, thank goodness," said John Carter at the California fire information center in Sacramento.

He said the lightning strikes have almost stopped, and those reported overnight did not hit timber areas.

Fires Fanned

"We are optimistic, but because of current strong winds, existing fires are being fanned and getting bigger," he said.

"Hopefully, if the winds die down, we can hook (surround) these fires," he said.

A fire in the Plumas National Forest in California, threatening the towns of Milford and Doyle, raced seven miles in two hours, fire officials said. Nearly 1,000 people from both communities have been evacuated.

Statewide fire coordinators said their second priority, after battling fires in populous Tuolumne County, is blazes in Klamath National Forest, where seven groups of fires--one made up of 65 fires--have burned 65,000 acres.

Dry Weather Forecast

The weather forecast for the weekend called for dry, summery weather in southwestern Oregon, with winds of 15 m.p.h. from the north.

"It could blow up in our faces," Naddy said in Oregon.

One fire had burned about 3,400 acres within six miles of Grants Pass, a city of 15,000. A change in wind could blow the fire toward the town, officials said.

A series of fires, totaling 5,000 acres, had burned within three miles of Canyonville, a town of 1,300 people about 50 miles north of Grants Pass.

'They Are a Concern'

The fires near Canyonville "are not of imminent concern at this point, but they are a concern," said Ron DeHart of the Oregon Unified Coordination Group in Salem, headquarters for the state's firefighting effort.

The largest fire in Oregon, in the remote Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the southwest corner of the state, grew from 4,000 acres Thursday to about 15,000 acres Friday.

"That one went nuts yesterday," DeHart said. "It's down there in some steep country. The winds really raised Cain."

That fire has been left alone because of its remote location and because no people or structures were threatened.

Visibility Reduced

The National Weather Service said smoky skies and reduced visibility will persist for several days at least in northern California and Nevada and southern Oregon. Smoke from the fires had drifted as far as Wyoming by Friday.

Falling temperatures and rising humidity brought some relief to firefighters in Idaho, but the end of the battle was not in sight.

A 90-acre fire still smoldered in Yellowstone National Park, but it was not considered a threat and 62 park employees had been sent to work in the California effort, park spokesman Greg Kroll said.

Sixty volunteer firemen from Wyoming headed west with two dozen fire engines to help in California as well.

"Some (are) ranchers who have finished haying, miners who are kind of unemployed right now, construction workers who are out of work," said Assistant State Forester Mike Gagen.

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