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Ventura County

No Signs of Fire Slowing

Firefighting: The Wolf blaze in Los Padres wilderness spreads to 20,000 acres. Sensitive species and Indian rock art are now threatened.

June 07, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Firefighters continued their assault Thursday on a fast-moving wildfire that has scorched nearly 20,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai and is now threatening ancient Native American ruins and the habitat of three endangered animals.

A huge wall of flames--four football fields wide and 100-feet high in some areas--showed no signs of slowing after a furious run east across hillsides and valleys in the Sespe Wilderness the night before. Fanned by 10 to 20 mph winds, the wildfire moved quicker Wednesday evening than at any time in the previous four nights, officials said.

"It's really grown today because we got some wind," said Rich Phelps, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "The humidity was in the low teens and it was warm at 11 p.m. There were [firefighters] out there at night. It's a risky business."

Warm steady breezes, stifling 100-degree temperatures and thousands of acres of brush and trees have combined to fuel the fire, which some officials predict could consume more than 30,000 acres before it's knocked down.

With more than 1,700 firefighters battling the blaze, the six-day fire has so far cost state and county agencies in excess of $4 million. The fire remains only 15% contained. While the blaze is not yet a threat to nearby communities, officials want to err on the side of caution and also protect watersheds and other resources within the wilderness.

In northern Los Angeles County, a wind-whipped brush fire also continued to burn out of control, scorching more than 15,600 acres, prompting officials to evacuate 1,100 residents from their houses and ranches in Green Valley, north of Saugus.

Seven houses were destroyed by the fire, which burned through a home a few hours after the blaze started about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. No serious injuries have been reported. The cause of the fire has not been determined but is of a "suspicious origin," fire officials said.

The fire began on Copper Hill in San Francisquito Canyon and picked up momentum as it consumed thick brush in the Angeles National Forest. By nightfall Thursday, the fire was 5% contained.

"It's horrible, ashes falling everywhere, the sun was blood-red and the house was pitch black," said Steve Jolliffe, 33, a Green Valley homeowner who with his wife, Sonya, was evacuated to Saugus High School. "The houses are empty up there. It was eerie."

In Ventura County, the so-called Wolf fire sped east over six miles of peaks and valleys near Pine Mountain Ridge overnight and continued to burn in dozens of hot spots throughout the Sespe Wilderness on Thursday afternoon.

Hand crews, armed with pick axes and shovels, hiked into the rugged back country after bulldozers plowed through a line of thick, brush-covered trails. They were followed by a group of U.S. Forest Service biologists and archeologists on hand to ensure that the tractors didn't destroy Indian ruins or sensitive habitat.

Among the potential casualties of the wildfire are ancient artifacts left behind by Chumash Indians, officials said.

There are more than 200 rock art drawings in the path of the fire that were made by Native Americans more than 5,000 years ago, said Joan Brandoff-Kerr, an archeologist with the Los Padres National Forest. She said an untold number of ancient woven baskets, tools, clothing and other artifacts could also be destroyed.

"The rock art here is internationally know for its quality," she said.

Officials fear that the rock art could be blackened or damaged by the fire or the retardant dropped by aircraft to squash the flames.

Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service biologists have grown increasingly nervous about the fire's effect on the arroyo toad and the southern steelhead trout. The fire is already believed to have burned some habitat for both species.

The toad lives near moist creek beds. The steelhead trout is one of few fish species in Southern California that migrate from the ocean to freshwater creeks.

"The toads have not been impacted," said Al Hess, a resource officer with the U.S. Forest Service. "But we don't want them to get run over by a bulldozer."

By afternoon Thursday, the fire had moved within eight miles of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, although officials said the rare birds were not in danger. Firefighters and hand crews worked to cut fire breaks on the north and south perimeters of the fire to help redirect the blaze.

Unlike the wildfire near Saugus, the Wolf fire has threatened few structures and no homes. As a result, crews are being cautious in how they attack the blaze.

"We're not going to get someone killed," said Mike Erb, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

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