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Woman Held in Sequoia Blaze

Disaster: Her runaway campfire is suspected of igniting an inferno that threatens several groves of giant trees. At least 10 buildings are destroyed, 1,000 people evacuated.

July 25, 2002|BETTINA BOXALL and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KERNVILLE, Calif. — The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday arrested a Bakersfield woman whose campfire is blamed for igniting a 55,000-acre blaze that continues to burn out of control, threatening a number of groves of towering trees in Sequoia National Forest. As night fell, the blaze had destroyed at least 10 buildings and forced the evacuation of 1,000 residents and campers.

Driven by erratic winds that gusted through the rugged, mountainous terrain, the flames spread rapidly through the recently established Sequoia National Monument south of the better-known national park of the same name. Although the fire was not threatening the park late Wednesday, it was expanding in three directions: east, southeast and west, according to the Forest Service.

"It's like an amoeba," said Art Gaffrey, supervisor of the National Monument, a 328,000-acre enclave within the forest dedicated two years ago by President Clinton for the preservation of the stately trees.

Gaffrey said 11 groves of sequoias, many of them 2,000 years old, were within a mile or two of the advancing flames. He said if the winds pick up or change direction, "the fire has every opportunity to enter a grove." The fire was 16% contained as of 6 p.m.

Teri VanBrunt, 45, was arrested at her home in Bakersfield by Forest Service law enforcement personnel and county sheriff's deputies.Yvonne Young, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said VanBrunt was being held in Kern County jail on suspicion of allowing a campfire to escape. She is scheduled for a court appearance today in Fresno.

The Forest Service said VanBrunt reportedly had walked into the Roads End Lodge near this small mountain town Sunday afternoon and told people her abandoned campfire was burning out of control.

Brian Adams, another Forest Service spokesman, said she walked away and that a few minutes later, the lodge burned to the ground.

Clouds of brown smoke mushroomed thousands of feet into the air Wednesday afternoon as the flames consumed stands of chaparral, cedars and pine trees. Six elite hotshot ground crews were brought in to supplement the more than 1,000 firefighters on the ground and 18 water-dropping aircraft in the sky.

Most immediately threatened Wednesday night were the Pack Saddle, Long Meadow, Cunningham, Three Sisters and Freeman Creek groves scattered along a 10-mile stretch of steep canyons and tall mountain ridges on the west flank of the Kern River.

"Protection of the giant sequoias is one of the main objectives," Gaffrey said.

More than 100 feet around in some cases, ancient sequoias are more massive than California's coastal redwoods, which grow taller.

With their thick bark, the giant sequoias are among the most fire-resistant conifers in the world, but they are not invulnerable.

Sue Exline, a Forest Service public information officer, said that burn scars left over the centuries show that the massive trunks of the trees can survive repeated fires, but if foliage on the upper limbs burns, the trees could die.

Moreover, fires of high intensity can heat the earth sufficiently to kill the trees by burning their shallow roots, said Jon Keeley, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey based in Sequoia National Park.

Exline said crews have been clearing away underbrush in recent years to reduce the chance that flare-ups will spread to the green canopies, 100 to 200 feet above the forest floor.

Unfortunately, she said, brush hasn't yet been cleared away in any of the groves most immediately threatened by the fire.

Historically, the trees withstood fires that tended to be more frequent but of comparatively low intensity. Such fires, in fact, can aid in the growth of giant sequoias by helping clear out the forest floor and providing places where seedlings can germinate.

But some fires in recent times have been more intense and have lasted longer, and experts such as Keeley worry that the giant trees may not be able to survive these fires.

The reason these fires are more intense is the subject of fierce debate among loggers, who blame environmentalists for filing suits that prevent thinning the forests of smaller, fire-prone trees and brush, and environmental groups, who argue that logging companies target the biggest, most fire-resistant trees in the forest.

The Forest Service, which determines which trees can be cut, tries to walk a middle ground.

"We don't think the timber companies or the environmentalists are all right or all wrong," said Matt Mathes, the chief spokesman for the Forest Service in California. "The point is there is too much fuel out there for a whole set of reasons,"--not the least of which, he said, is that the Forest Service has suppressed 97% of all fires, thus preventing the beneficial effects of low-intensity fires.

According to Keeley, both fire suppression and logging practices can promote the dense regrowth of underbrush and small trees that create the conditions for more devastating fires.

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