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Ventura County

Elite Unit Joins Attack on Ojai Fire

Los Padres: Blaze has charred 7,500 acres over four days, with only 15% under containment.

June 05, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A raging wildfire charged over mountain peaks north of Ojai on Tuesday and swept through heavily wooded areas, while an elite firefighting team arrived to take over the battle to control the 7,500-acre blaze.

Crews specially trained in battling high-mountain brush fires arrived by bus throughout the day, while water-dropping helicopters and tanker planes continued their air assault on the swift-moving fire.

Despite their efforts, the blaze dubbed the Wolf fire continued to burn out of control in a large swath of Los Padres National Forest south of Lockwood Valley Road and east of California 33. The 4-day-old fire clouded skies and sent ash raining down on much of Ventura County. By nightfall, the blaze was only 15% contained.

From highway turnouts, fire crews on break watched as the blaze erupted on five separate fronts Tuesday afternoon, with 20-mph winds pushing flames eastward along steep hillsides in the Sespe Wilderness, about 12 miles from the California Condor Sanctuary.

"The fire terrain has been very difficult," said Jim Smith, division chief for Los Padres National Forest. "We're not going to be putting people out in front of the flames."

No one has been injured in the fire.

Leaders of the 44-member crew from the California Interagency Management Team spent the day working alongside Smith and others who mapped out the initial firefighting plan.

Today, the special firefighting team, one of five in California and 16 across the country, will begin figuring out a new strategy to contain the wildfire.

Firefighters in the unit come from several state and local agencies and have received training in how to battle large-scale wildfires in dangerous terrain, officials said. The unit is part of a larger national wildfire planning team based in Boise, Idaho, said Kris Fister, a spokeswoman for the team.

"We are used to dealing with fires that are more complex and have complex management issues," she said.

The arrival of the unit came as more than 1,500 firefighters continued to attack the fire, with flames coming within three miles of several homes in the Howard Creek area north of Rose Valley. There have been no orders to evacuate.

Helicopters scooped water from ponds in Rose Valley and the Matilija Dam, while a squadron of tanker planes spent much of the day flying through a thick cloud of smoke, dropping water and flame retardant along the 7,000-foot Pine Mountain Ridge.

On the ground, hand crews, hampered by temperatures close to 100 degrees, used pickaxes and shovels to clear paths on the north and south perimeters of the fire. The day before, bulldozers plowed a trail along Dry Lake Ridge to stop the fire from advancing south toward Ojai.

The blaze, which has already cost firefighting agencies more than $543,000, started Saturday near Wolf Grill Restaurant off California 33, about 12 miles north of Ojai.

A team of fire investigators has been unable to determine the cause.

The fire has charred thickets of brush and pine that had not burned in 70 years. It has spewed ash as far east as Thousand Oaks and cast a thick haze of brown and orange smoke over much of Ventura County.

Despite the hazy skies and falling ash, county officials said the air is not considered unhealthful unless the smell of smoke is present.

"It's our understanding that the smoke is not in our communities," said Doug Tubbs of the Ventura County Air Pollution District. "The general cautionary note is that if smoke [is present] in the air, then you should curtail outdoor activities."

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