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Ventura County

Marine Air Slows Advance of the Wolf Fire

Safety: Crews from around the nation put in long shifts fighting the 20,800-acre blaze in the Los Padres forest.

June 08, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS and ELENA GAONA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With a flow of moist marine air slowing the advance of flames, firefighters battling a 20,800-acre brush fire in the Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai got a reprieve Friday for the first time since the fire began a week ago.

More than 1,100 firefighters from around the country have been working in around-the-clock shifts to knock down the stubborn blaze, which has raced through brush-covered valleys and hillsides in the Sespe Wilderness. Despite an aggressive air and ground assault, the fire is only 25% contained.

At an encampment set up at Soule Park in Ojai, dome tents dotted the landscape as weary firefighters slept under shade trees, the tops of their heads poking from sleeping bags tossed onto the grass. Some played cards at picnic tables, chatted among themselves or read books as they waited for their next stint at the front lines.

They described the terrain in the Sespe Wilderness as steep and dry, the twigs and branches so brittle that they crackle and pop when firefighters swing their tools. Temperatures have ranged from the mid-80s to the high-90s, with winds at 10 to 25 mph.

Squatting under a tree in the park, U.S. Forest Service firefighter Jack McKenzie sharpened a rake-like tool he uses to cut fire breaks through the deep brush.

His face still dark with soot, McKenzie had just come from Pine Mountain Ridge, where his 20-person crew from the Tahoe National Forest worked to keep the fire from spreading south.

"It's like icing," he said of the wall of fire that threatened to spread down the slope, "and you're trying to keep it from slopping over."

With fluctuating weather conditions and enough dry brush to keep the fire burning for days, firefighting crews are settling in for the long haul, said David Drum, spokesman for the state Department of Forestry. The fire has cost state and county agencies $6.6 million.

Many firefighters have to be flown into the fire area because of the rugged mountain terrain. Others face two- to three-mile hikes to the front lines. Because of the commute time, many firefighters are working shifts of 30 hours or longer, Drum said.

Carrying backpacks of food, the firefighters consider themselves on "coyote assignment." They eat and sleep in safe places at the fire site and wake up to battle the fire again for a few hours before heading back to camp, Drum said.

Soule Park in some ways resembles a war camp, he said. Exhausted firefighters rest at one end, while tactical support teams nearby plan strategies, checking maps and juggling radio communications from the fire site a dozen miles north of Ojai.

The state's Incident Management Team sets up such camps when brush fires rage for more than a few days, said Bill Brickley, the unit's leader. Complete with kitchens, showers and tents, the camp helps coordinate firefighters from about nine cities, five counties and several state agencies.

Help has come from Ventura, Orange, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Kern counties, as well as cities that include Montecito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Laverne and Rancho Cucamonga. Crews have also come from as far away as New Mexico and Montana.

The firefighters braced for gusty winds of up to 25 mph this weekend. But the same weather pattern should bring cooler temperatures and higher humidity.

"We're here for the long haul," said McKenzie, surveying his crew reclining on the grass and munching sandwiches. "We're still fresh

Shane Tosse, a firefighter with the Modoc Interagency Hotshot Crew, came down from Pine Mountain Ridge after pulling a 36-hour shift.

"This is in steep mountains," said Tosse, explaining what sets the Ventura County fire apart from other wildfires.

"With the way this fire's burning and how dry it is this season, we're looking at a rough year," said Tosse, who operates a chain saw with an elite squad of firefighters trained to battle blazes in Western back country.

Eric Jones and his five-person crew from the U.S. Forest Service's firefighting team based at the Angeles National Forest was preparing to pull out after five days on the front lines.

"We'll sleep tonight and get ready for the next one," said Jones, of La Habra Heights, as he sat at a picnic table playing cards with his colleagues.

"This fire's a lot of work and we're not even done yet," said firefighter Fernando Cardona, of Chino.

Meanwhile, a wildfire in northern Los Angeles County was only 10% contained by nightfall Friday, after charring more than 25,000 acres of brush and timber and destroying at least seven homes.

The blaze was burning in a northeasterly direction from a construction site on Copper Hill Road in San Francisquito Canyon, where a spark from welding equipment apparently touched off the flames Wednesday afternoon.

Despite the continued spread of the fire, no serious injuries were reported and no homes or structures were lost Friday. But residents prepared for the worst as flames continued to chew up dense brush near several mountain communities south of the Antelope Valley.

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