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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Jail Crew Member Dies in Fall While Fighting Fire

Accident: Inmate, part of a team clearing brush in steep terrain, is killed after losing footing. Season's largest blaze is contained.

July 19, 1999|MATT SURMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PIRU — A jail inmate working on a firefighting crew died early Sunday while battling Ventura County's largest blaze this fire season, which in two days blackened more than 2,500 acres near Lake Piru.

The fire, started Saturday by a ricocheting bullet from a nearby shooting range, was fully contained by 9 a.m. Sunday. Fire officials said they anticipate the brush fire being extinguished by this evening.

The man who died, Martin Michael Stiles, 40, a California Department of Corrections inmate assigned to the Los Angeles County Fire Department Camp in Azusa, was a native of the San Diego area, according to John Foy, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

Stiles was working with a 14-member crew clearing brush at 2 a.m. in very steep terrain when he lost his footing and fell 150 feet to the floor of the canyon, authorities said. He was found dead about 10 minutes later.

The incident is being investigated by a team from the Ventura County and Los Angeles County fire departments and the Department of Forestry, all of which had crews fighting the blaze, and by the two counties' sheriff's departments and the state Department of Corrections.

Corrections inmates on fire crews typically perform the work of building fire lines by hand, cutting away brush to reduce a fire's fuel source.

Across the county, a 10- to 15-acre brush fire on the Conejo Grade brought Ventura Freeway traffic to a crawl in both directions Sunday afternoon after the California Highway Patrol shut down two southbound lanes to bring in firefighting equipment. Southbound traffic was backed up through Oxnard for several hours.

That fire, which broke out around 1:20 p.m. on the south side of the freeway near Old Conejo Road, was fully contained by about 2:35, and investigators were still searching for its cause, according to county Fire Department officials.

Ventura Freeway traffic had trouble earlier in the day too. Northbound traffic ground to a halt for about 20 minutes after a motor home lost its gas tank, which caught on fire near Seaward Avenue about 9:45 a.m.

In the Piru fire, the blaze was heading east along Holser Canyon and across the Los Angeles County line away from populated areas.

To control the fire the first night, 300 additional firefighters were brought to the scene to assist the 350 who had been fighting the flames Saturday. Also that first day, fire officials sent in four water-dropping helicopters and six air tankers, but by Sunday afternoon most of the fire was being battled on the ground.

As of Sunday evening, the cost of fighting the fire was estimated at $350,000, according the county Fire Department.

"The activity level was high. We were hitting all the hot spots," said Clint Kemp, a county firefighter who on Sunday afternoon said he'd slept just four hours since the fire broke out around 2:40 p.m. Saturday. "We were awake fighting the fire most of the night."

The fire began to approach four ranch houses late Saturday, but firefighters cut back trees and shrubbery to derail the flames. A corral caught fire but was quickly extinguished, Kemp said.

Weather was not a big factor in the spread of the weekend fire, said Joe Luna, a Fire Department spokesman. The humidity was at about 30% Saturday, and the winds were not particularly strong, he said.

"We're doing a lot of mop-up now," he said. "We're trying to tally a clean line around the fire. We'll be making good progress through the night."

Even though a 600-acre fire last month in Los Padres National Forest was caused by target shooters, Foy considers the fact that a ricocheting bullet started the Piru fire to be an anomaly.

"It's kind of a freak event," he said. "They're shooting up there all the time."

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