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Ventura County

Cooler Weather Helps Slow Wolf Fire

Battle: Firefighters expect to have the blaze contained by Friday evening. So far, it has cost taxpayers more than $11.5 million.

June 11, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Across some of the most treacherous terrain so far, hand crews Monday continued a final push against the Wolf fire, now expected to be fully contained by Friday evening.

"They made some good progress today," said Craig Vanderswaag, a firefighter with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. "Things are moving real well because the weather has been great for firefighting."

Cooler weather and increasing humidity continued to slow the wildfire's northeasterly progress Monday as hundreds of firefighters were released from duty and crews began disassembling large tents at the Soule Park base camp in Ojai. Late Monday officials said the fire was 60% contained.

From a high of nearly 2,000 firefighters flown in to battle the blaze from across the country, about 1,100 remained Monday.

A team of firefighters from Stanislaus National Forest remained at Mutau Flats northeast of the wildfire to protect six cabins that were still threatened, Vanderswaag said.

Officials said the change in weather headed off what could have been a catastrophic blaze.

"It could have gone a long way. It could have gone to Interstate 5," said Dan Gosnell, a battalion chief for the San Bernardino National Forest, who has spent the past week planning strategies to fight the wildfire. "But we have had some good weather."

However, the fire is still dangerous for those on the front lines, officials said.

About 400 firefighters specially trained in battling wildfires are stationed on either side of the head of the fire near the north slope of Pine Mountain Ridge. Using pickaxes and shovels, both crews of about 200 are cutting through thick tangles of trees and brush to carve a containment line.

The teams are expected to complete the line in the next few days, with full containment Friday, Gosnell said.

The work is being done near steep rock outcroppings, where a slip could mean serious injury, Gosnell said. The crews rappelled into the area Sunday by helicopter.

"It's hot and it's dusty and dirty, and there is a lot of work to be done," Gosnell said. Firefighters "take a break to nap and they are back to work. There are snakes, ants, bee stings, dehydration, poison oak .... It's a young person's game."

The fire has transformed nearly 21,300 acres of dry pine trees and thick chaparral along steep ridges and low valleys into a gray, treeless landscape visible from many points along the reopened California 33.

The fire is expected to burn a total of about 22,500 acres before it's contained, officials said.

Although the use of heavy machinery is prohibited in the federally protected Sespe Wilderness, bulldozers were allowed in last week to clear five miles of trails to help slow the fire's progress toward a condor sanctuary.

Officials said Monday that since the fire started June 1, it has cost federal, state and county agencies more than $11.5 million. Several roads and recreation areas, including the entire Sespe Wilderness, remain closed.

Although the cause of the wildfire has not been determined, sources familiar with the investigation have said that sparks from firearms shot at a van parked in tall grass behind a restaurant north of Ojai on California 33 most likely ignited the fire.

Several members of a bicycle touring group said they witnessed people shooting at the van, and then watched the steep hill behind it go up in flames shortly afterward.

On Monday, the restaurant remained closed and yellow police tape surrounded the van.

In northern Los Angeles County, a wildfire that destroyed nine homes and charred more than 23,400 acres over several days was contained late Monday, fire officials said.

The six-day cost of fighting the Copper fire in Los Angeles County was estimated at more than $6.4 million and could reach $9.4 million, according to U.S. Forest Service and Los Angeles County fire officials.

Authorities believe a spark from welding equipment at a construction site on Copper Hill Road in San Francisquito Canyon touched off the flames Wednesday afternoon.

"It was kind of like fighting a flow of gasoline," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Brian Jordan. "Our engines can only hold 500 gallons of water, and it was very difficult to make progress in terrain that was 90% inaccessible. The key elements for us in situations like that are the bulldozers and helicopters."

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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