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As Fire Subsides, Exhausted Crews Start to Go Home

October 23, 1998|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FILLMORE — As flames burning through the wild lands of Oat Mountain began to subside Thursday, some exhausted firefighters received orders to go home.

"All I'm going to do when I get there is sleep," said Cleveland National Forest Firefighter Augie Norte. "Oh yes, sleep." Norte, gripping a bottle of water and looking haggard, waited with three other firefighters for final clearance to drive home to San Diego. Norte and his fellow crew members had been on the front lines since Tuesday, averaging about 14 hours a shift.

Jason Pollard, weary after battling the season's biggest fire, said he would have to return to work today. "I just worked my days off," he said.

The blaze that began Sunday in Piru threatened homes before scorching 12,452 acres, largely unpopulated. Authorities said it should be fully contained today.

In all, 1,412 firefighters from Sacramento to San Diego were called to douse the flames and protect homes and orchards. More than 300 personnel were released Thursday, with those who traveled the farthest going home first.

Officials expect the blaze to be under control Saturday. The erratic winds earlier in the week subsided Thursday, and dry air became more humid.

"Where Mother Nature was against us in the beginning of this fire, she's really cooperating now," said Ventura County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Chuck Buttell.

Although flames crept to within a few feet of several homes in Fillmore, none burned. One rancher reported losing 824 trees, Ventura County Farm Bureau officials said.

Injuries were also kept to a minimum: Seven firefighters received medical aid, all for bee stings or bug bites.

A 41-year-old Fillmore man trying to torch open a locked gate at a Piru ranch accidentally sparked the blaze Sunday, authorities said. Investigators are trying to determine if he will be held responsible for the cost of fighting the blaze, which has been estimated at $4 million.

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