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Firefighters Gain Upper Hand on Blaze Near Piru

Hopper Canyon: With efforts aided by cooler weather, higher humidity, authorities predict full containment by midweek.

August 11, 1997|COLL METCALFE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PIRU — Fire crews continued to make progress against the 23,000-acre Hopper Canyon fire Sunday, reporting 70% containment by late evening and predicting full containment by midweek.

According to authorities, Sunday's cooler temperatures and higher humidity helped pacify the fire, allowing the more than 2,200 firefighters to finally meet the blaze head-on after days of just trying to slow it down.

"The fire has really calmed down with the temperatures and the humidity, so we're starting to make direct attacks on it," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Don Tashima.

Investigators, who determined that the fire was caused by a person, continued their work Sunday trying to determine whether it was accidental or deliberate. They said the cost of fighting the blaze so far had reached $4.6 million.

Firefighters had corralled the southern and eastern fronts of the fire, which earlier were poised to sweep through Piru, and expected to gain full containment by 6 p.m. Wednesday.

For days, crews played catch-up with the fire--the largest in Ventura County since the 1993 Greenmeadow fire scorched 40,000 acres--by cutting deep breaks into the rugged terrain with axes and shovels and using aerial water drops to douse the 1,000-degree flames.

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They also set fires to burn sections along the breaks to create a "black line" of charred vegetation and starve the blaze of fuel.

Initially, crews were hampered by the extreme heat that sent the mercury soaring to above 95 degrees and sometimes 100 in the dusty canyons, and by the low humidity and moderate winds.

However, as the week wore on, clouds accompanied by lower temperatures and higher humidity aided the firefighters.

According to authorities, the danger to communities such as Piru and Fillmore had been eliminated.

But the hilly topography, heavy brush and steep canyons were hampering firefighters' efforts against the blaze's northern fingers, which had extended into the Sespe Wilderness and condor habitats.

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More than 300 firefighters were dropped into the area Sunday to carve out fire lines and clear brush. They were aided by airplane tankers and helicopters that bombarded the advancing flames with thousands of gallons of water and sticky pink fire retardant.

The fire, which erupted Tuesday near an oil platform on Hopper Mountain, caused slight structural damage to a garage and boat in Piru and the only injuries were bee stings suffered by five firefighters.

Nevertheless, the fire struck a blow to some agricultural producers, turning acre upon acre of fertile grazing land into a stark and sterile landscape of mottled black stumps and powdery gray ash.

Red Bennett said he had lost about half of the sage bushes his bees use to make the distinctively sweet amber honey.

Despite the loss, he took a rather philosophical view.

"You've got to expect this sort of thing and work around it," the 55-year-old Piru resident said. "We're not too upset about it."

Bennett, who produces about 400 barrels of honey a year, said he will have difficulty finding other sources of pollen for his bees and estimated it may take six years for the sage bushes to return.

Officials said they did not expect to make more evacuations but will keep the Lake Piru Recreation Area closed for the next few days.

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