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Firefighters make headway against 4 blazes

June 15, 2008|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

Firefighters in Northern California had contained 90% of a 520-acre blaze in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Saturday, and slowly gained the upper hand on three other major fires burning from Monterey County north to Tehama County.

Dying winds, cooler temperatures and beefed-up crews helped in the fight against the blazes, which had burned more than 53,000 acres and at one point had firefighters concerned about the town of Paradise.

"That happened yesterday, but we were able to hold it back," Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Saturday. "So we're expecting the same thing today."

The Humboldt fire, which has destroyed 74 homes, damaged 20 others and still threatens as many as 4,000 structures, has consumed 23,162 acres. The blaze was about 45% contained, with more than 3,800 firefighters, 521 fire engines and eight air tankers on scene, according to state forestry spokesman Scott Upton.

Containment is expected by Monday night.

About 8,000 people have been evacuated over the last three days, primarily from the southern part of Paradise, said MaryAnn Aldrich, a spokeswoman for the state forestry agency.

After wind-whipped flames gusted toward Paradise on Thursday, fire officials ordered the evacuation of about 1,500 residents in the southern part of the town of 30,000, which is 90 miles north of Sacramento. On Saturday, the fire was mostly burning near Doe Mill Ridge, just below Paradise.

"We've always called it the big one, it's always the one we've trained for and it's been our worst-case scenario; it's the one we use for our tabletop exercises," Janet Upton said. "This is that fire."

Eight firefighters have been injured: one suffered a leg injury, two had first-degree facial burns and five suffered heat exhaustion-related injuries as temperatures Friday climbed into the triple digits, Upton said. She said temperatures over the weekend are expected to be lower, in the mid-90s.

Several residents were also treated for smoke inhalation at area hospitals, Upton said. Investigators were still trying to determine the cause of the fire, which started on the south side of California 32 off Humboldt Road, Upton said. Officials on Saturday allowed some residents back into their homes.

The Indians fire in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest continued to burn in the Pinon Peak area in rugged terrain and was 38% contained early Saturday. Nearly 1,900 firefighters were battling that blaze, which has burned 24,818 acres west of King City in Monterey County. So far, the fire has cost $4.3 million to fight, destroyed one home and its outbuildings and damaged another home.

The fire continues to threaten more than 800 structures in the Pine Canyon area, said Manuel Madrigal, a spokesman for the Indians fire management team.

The fire started last Sunday at Escondido Campground when a campfire burned out of control, Madrigal said. Eight firefighters have been injured, he said.

"The weather conditions are still pretty extreme for us here," Madrigal said. "High temperatures, low humidity and wind conditions. They vary depending on where you are in elevation, but at the higher elevations of course it's a little windier."

The fire has been especially hard to fight because of the back-country terrain, which makes it hard to get crews and supplies in, Madrigal said.

"We're having to back off toward old existing roadways to try to get containment lines in place," said Richard Hadley, a fire information officer. "But if we're lucky, and the weather holds, we're making some good progress."

The Whiskey fire in Tehama County, which has burned 3,477 acres and grew during the day because of the steep terrain and stretched thin firefighting resources, was 15% contained Saturday, said Mickie Jakez, a state forestry agency spokeswoman. The fire started Thursday in the Mendocino National Forest, and its cause was still under investigation, Jakez said. One inmate crew member has suffered heat-related injuries, Jakez said.

Firefighters were working aggressively to protect high-value commercial timber in the area owned by Crane Mills, Jakez said. The fire was five miles northwest of the small community of Paskenta and was threatening Thomes Creek, which is its main water supply, she said.

The 600-acre Martin fire near the Santa Cruz County town of Felton was 75% contained Saturday, according to fire officials. One firefighter suffered minor injuries battling the blaze that destroyed two homes and eight outbuildings, said Firefighter Mike Dargetto. Some residents who had been evacuated were allowed to return home Friday afternoon.

"The weather is working in our favor, the winds have died down," Dargetto said. " . . . We pretty much have a wrap on this, and we're expecting full containment this evening [Saturday]. We're not expecting the fire to spread beyond the lines, it's staying at 600 acres."

Those easing conditions also allowed firefighters to fully contain the Electra fire in Amador County on Saturday after it burned for 16 hours through about 400 acres, officials said.

Although the National Weather Service is predicting continued temperatures in the mid- to upper 90s in the area through the weekend, senior meteorologist Dan Gudgel said that "winds are kind of out of the equation."

"The winds this weekend are not expected to be particularly high anywhere," Gudgel said. "This is a good thing for the firefighters. They're dealing with low fuel humidities."

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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