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Fire Destroys 5 Homes East of San Diego

July 31, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A raging brush fire near the mountain community of Julian destroyed five homes Tuesday and forced dozens of backwoods residents to evacuate, officials said.

More than 1,700 firefighters fought the blaze, which broke out Monday afternoon and within 36 hours had burned more than 13,000 acres, much of it roadless forest with tall trees left dry and brittle from drought.

Although many businesses closed early and some residents left, the fire did not appear to be threatening Julian.

The 3,500-resident community is best known for its annual apple festival and cozy bed-and-breakfast establishments.

Rhonda Rapue obeyed an order by San Diego County sheriff's deputies to evacuate. She herded her five children and one grandchild into a van with two dogs, a cat and the family's important documents.

"I'm worried about my kids, I'm worried about my husband, I'm worried about Julian," she said of the town in the mountainous heart of San Diego County. "This is a community where everybody knows everybody."

By nightfall Tuesday, the fire was considered only 10% contained. Eight vehicles, three outbuildings and three recreational vehicles were reported destroyed, in addition to the five homes.

Only two injuries were reported, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Officials believe that the fire may have been sparked when a California National Guard helicopter--on a mission to find hidden groves of marijuana plants--clipped a power line, sending sparks to the ground.

"It certainly looks that way," said National Guard Lt. Col. Terry Knight. "If it is, the California National Guard will do everything we can to make it right. We don't start fires; we support civil authority."

Five wolves at the California Wolf Center, a sanctuary for injured or abandoned animals, died of smoke inhalation before the center could be evacuated.

Horses, dogs, cats, llamas, a cow and several parrots were rescued by volunteers from the San Diego Humane Society facility in the area. Several housing developments and two YMCA camps were evacuated.

The fire broke out in the foothills of Volcan Mountain and spread south and east as winds changed, forcing closure of California 78 and 79. The plume of dark smoke could be seen in downtown San Diego, 60 miles away.

"We're gaining ground," said California forestry Capt. Ron Serabia, who was coordinating nine air tankers and 11 helicopters. "We have some of the best pilots in the world out there."

Elsewhere in California, a giant blaze in Sequoia National Forest grew to 83,000 acres Tuesday night and continued its eastward push away from precious groves of ancient giant sequoias.

"It's huge," said Laurel Sphar, information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

That blaze, which started from a wayward campfire July 21, was only 35% contained.

Meanwhile, the 35,000--acre Sour Biscuit fire near California's northern border is expected to merge Tuesday night with the massive, 145,000--acre Florence fire, which is burning in southwestern Oregon. About 28,000 people may have to evacuate.

Officials said that if the two blazes don't join on their own, firefighters may try to connect them.

"It'll be easier to manage," said Tom Valluzzi, spokesman for the Forest Service in Oregon. Both fires started July 13.

The Sour Biscuit fire is 30% contained, while the Florence fire is only 2% contained.

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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