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Ventura County | THE WOLF FIRE

Crews Try to Slow Blaze

Firefighting: Heavy equipment will be used today to cut breaks in the protected wilderness to halt advancing flames.

June 06, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bracing for strong winds and high temperatures through the weekend, firefighters will use bulldozers today to cut firebreaks through protected wilderness to slow a 10,644-acre wildfire north of Ojai before it can threaten the Sespe Condor Sanctuary.

Using bulldozers to carve a six- to-10-mile fire line at the southern end of the Sespe Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest signals a more aggressive strategy as firefighters struggle to control a fire that some fear could burn for weeks.

Heavy machinery is usually prohibited by federal restrictions protecting sensitive wildlife habitat.

"We're still trying to set up some kind of perimeter to somehow stop this thing," said state Firefighter Bill Rodat, one of 1,600 firefighters called up from across the country to battle the fire.

By nightfall, the blaze was 15% contained. One firefighter was treated for dehydration.

The cause of the 5-day-old Wolf fire, which has already cost state and county agencies more than $3.5 million, has not been determined.

But sources familiar with the investigation said Wednesday that people shooting weapons near the Wolf Grill off California 33, about 12 miles from Ojai, may have sparked the blaze.

Several members of a bicycling tour group said they saw people shooting at an abandoned car in the area shortly before the fire started Saturday afternoon. Merrick Cohn, 32, of Camarillo said he heard shots and then saw smoke coming from the area near the restaurant.

"I kept seeing [fire investigators] say they didn't know why it started, and I knew why it started," Cohn said. "I figured everyone did."

Meanwhile, triple-digit temperatures, dry conditions and 22 mph wind gusts fed a wildfire that threatened ranch homes in Saugus in Los Angeles County on Wednesday.

But fire officials said brush-clearance efforts spared most of those residences from damage. One house was reported destroyed.

The blaze was reported at 2:40 p.m. near the 23100 block of Piute Court and has burned through 3,500 acres of brush.

More than 300 firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and Los Angeles County Fire Department initially clustered around 10 houses in the San Francisquito Canyon region, fighting the blaze with the aid of four water-dropping helicopters and two fixed-wing air tankers.

Two days after a brush fire burned 125 acres in Angeles National Forest in Susana Canyon north of Azusa, spots of the singed land began burning again Wednesday afternoon, said Kathy Peterson, spokeswoman for the Forest Service. Fire crews who were already monitoring the scene kept the fire from spreading further, Peterson said.

Also, Peterson said, about three to five acres near the Pyramid Reservoir in Angeles National Forest burned Wednesday afternoon. And in the San Bernardino National Forest, two big blazes were under control, with one 90% contained and the other nearly completely controlled.

The Arrowhead fire, which officials believe could have been started by firefighters on a training exercise, consumed 2,688 acres and destroyed four storage buildings, a trailer, bathhouse and a commercial building. The blaze, which so far has cost $2.4 million to fight and could reach $4 million, was 90% contained Wednesday night, said Ruth Wenstrom of the U.S. Forest Service.

To the south, the Bee fire near Hemet was contained Monday and was expected to be completely controlled by 6 p.m., Wenstrom said. It burned 432 acres.

In Ventura County, tanker planes and helicopters continued their air assault on the region's largest fire, which cast a yellow and orange cloud over much of the area while raining ashes.

Although the condor sanctuary remains roughly 20 miles from the blaze, officials said that could quickly change if winds shift to the southeast. That is the main reason for using the bulldozers to cut a fire line through the Sespe Wilderness, they said.

"The primary reason is to keep the fire out of the condor sanctuary," said Aaron Gelopter, a member of an elite firefighting team that took over directing fire coverage Wednesday.

From his post in a remote section of Rose Valley, 1 1/2 miles south of the fire's head, state firefighter Rodat spent the day Wednesday directing a small squadron of Bell 250 helicopters as they swooped low to scoop water from a pond before heading back.

"It's totally inaccessible up there," Rodat said.

A winding section of California 33 between Wheeler Springs on the south and Lockwood Valley Road on the north will remain closed at least until Monday, officials said. Residents of the Howard Creek area about a mile from the wildfire stayed close to their homes Wednesday.

A day after the Wolf fire scorched the 7,000-foot Pine Mountain Ridge, it continued on an eastern path with an expanding front line that had stretched to at least four football fields wide.

Fueled by miles of pine trees and thick chaparral brush left bone dry by last winter's lack of rain, flames in some spots leaped more than 100 feet in the air, firefighters said.

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