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Wildfire Threatens Some of Oldest Sequoias

Nature: More than 1,000 residents and campers leave as a fast-moving blaze burns 38,000 acres in a national forest.

July 24, 2002|BETTINA BOXALL and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KERNVILLE, Calif. — A rapidly expanding wildfire raged out of control in Sequoia National Forest on Tuesday night, threatening some of the largest and oldest trees in the world and forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents and campers.

The blaze, which had blackened more than 38,000 acres of brush and timber and destroyed at least 10 structures by nightfall, was moving toward the Freeman Creek Grove, a stand of towering redwoods in the heart of the 328,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument. Some of the trees in the grove are more than 1,200 years old.

Despite the efforts of more than 1,000 firefighters on the ground and about a dozen water-dropping tanker planes and helicopters in the air, the wind-whipped fire continued to spread late Tuesday.

"They're working the best they can, but it's extremely tough out there," said Denise Alonzo, a U.S. Forest Service fire information officer. "The winds are gusty, there's a lot of dry brush, and the slopes are very steep."

Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said the sequoias' massive trunks can survive most forest fires, but flames spread by underbrush to upper limbs can kill the trees.

At nightfall, the fire was still 30 miles from the most renowned trees in the area: Giant Forest, which is in Sequoia National Park and home to General Sherman, said to be the largest tree in the world.

General Sherman is 274 feet tall, with a trunk more than 36 feet in diameter. The tree is believed to be perhaps 2,500 years old.

Officials said someone started the fire Sunday afternoon--deliberately or accidentally--in brush near Roads End, a tiny campsite community in the rugged Kern River canyon about 20 miles north of Lake Isabella. The flames spread quickly through the dry chaparral, driven to the treetops by strong, fluctuating winds.

The blaze, called the McNalley Fire, advanced 12 miles to the north and west in the first 48 hours, burning log cabins and other buildings and forcing the evacuation of Johnsondale, a mobile home community on South Creek, and Ponderosa, a hamlet of cottages and cabins on Peppermint Creek.

Hundreds of summer visitors, including scores of Boy Scouts, were evacuated from camps throughout the mountainous area, crowding the twisting, narrow roads with hastily packed vehicles..

By Tuesday night, the flames were approaching Camp Nelson, a small resort town on the south bank of the upper Tule River.

Skies turned reddish brown as clouds of smoke swept over Camp Nelson, but Alonzo said the closest flames were still more than a mile from the center of town. Fire units were redeployed to protect the community.

As night fell, no homes were in immediate danger, but the area is known for its erratic, gusty winds, and fire officials warned that the blaze could spread in any direction at any time.

Forecasters said temperatures in the national forest are expected to top out near 90 degrees today with continuing winds and dangerously low relative humidity. Lightning from thunderstorms could ignite more fires tonight, the National Weather Service said.

Fire officials say the dry Southwest is facing one of the worst fire seasons in years. About 3.7 million acres have burned in California, Arizona and Colorado so far this year, more than twice the 10-year average for the period of 1.7 million acres.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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