California Firefighters Battle Difficult Terrain

August 17, 2009

California residents are being urged to follow orders to leave their homes as crews struggled to control nearly a dozen wildfires burning in areas with inaccessible terrain.

“These fires will be different than most of the fires because of the terrain,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Saturday during a tour of the Lockheed Fire zone. “It’s very hard to get equipment in there and the resources in there. That’s why you see a lot of helicopters and fixed winged aircraft being used.”

The fire has blackened more than 10 square miles of remote wilderness since Wednesday and prompted mandatory evacuations of the mountain communities of Swanton and Bonny Doon, which have about 2,400 residents and several wineries.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi declared a state of emergency Friday for Santa Cruz County.

The blaze damaged two small structures and was threatening more than 1,000 homes and buildings. No homes were destroyed, but Schwarzenegger said 25 firefighters had been injured. The extent of their injuries wasn’t immediately known.

“We pray that they heal as quickly as possible,” Schwarzenegger said.

More crews have arrived to help with the blaze, which currently was being held back by a total of 2,000 firefighters, Nadim Yehia of CalFire said late Saturday. The fire was about 40 percent contained, he added.

Meanwhile, a separate fire in Yuba County north of Sacramento tripled in size Saturday to more than 6 square miles as the flames jumped the north Yuba River and began burning in Nevada County, according to CalFire spokeswoman Joann Cartoscelli. It was about 15 percent contained Saturday.

Schwarzenegger said the Lockheed Fire was among 11 burning up and down the coast in the state. Other blazes have forced evacuations and knocked out power, and smoke and ash from the growing wildfire in Santa Barbara County whirled into the Los Angeles area, prompting an unusual weather forecast of “scattered smoke.”

Bonnie Bartling with the National Weather Service said that forecast was expected for the Santa Monica Mountains, San Fernando Valley, and other areas of northern Los Angeles County.

The Yuba fire, which was ignited by burning feathers from a red-tailed hawk that flew into a power line, destroyed two homes Friday, forced the evacuation of about 120 residences and knocked out power in the Sierra foothills town of Dobbins, said Cartoscelli. Residents of about 40 homes were allowed to return after evacuation orders were lifted.

She added that the number of firefighters was more than doubled to 1,300 from around the state to battle the blaze.

Teams were trying to prevent the fire from spreading to the Colgate Powerhouse, the oldest powerhouse in the state and which provides electricity to the Dobbins area.

She said the area around the Yuba River was creating “difficult” problems, describing it as “very rough terrain. It’s steep. You can’t drive to it.”

Farther north, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department said Saturday that a week-old wildfire burning in the Los Padres National Forest was started by a campfire set by marijuana growers, part of a drug operation run by Mexican nationals.

More than 230 homes and ranches remained under evacuation orders as more than 2,000 firefighters took on that blaze, which has burned 131 square miles of timber and brush in the forest about 140 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It was 25 percent contained.

In Alameda County, which includes part of the Bay area, more than 400 firefighters were struggling to control a wind-driven grass fire burning an area of about 23 square miles near Tracy, according to a CalFire report. The Corral Fire was 60 percent contained, and Alameda County Fire department spokeswoman Aisha Knowles said Saturday that there was no threat to the nearby interstates 5 and 580.

In far northern California, 60-year-old Brenda Eitzen of Los Molinos has been accused of sparking a blaze by throwing away a lit cigarette Wednesday. She faces a maximum of four years in prison if convicted of starting the Coffin Fire, which had scorched nearly 19 square miles before full containment Saturday evening.

To the east, residents of 10 rural homes were allowed to return Saturday after a wind-whipped fire near Burney forced evacuations. Firefighters contained about 85 percent of the nearly 11-square-mile blaze about 200 miles north of Sacramento.

“They are making very good progress” said James Stewart, a CalFire spokesman. “It’s just a matter of putting everything out now.”


Associated Press writers Samantha Young in Sacramento, and Christopher Weber and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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