LOS ANGELES – A massive wildfire racing through theSequoia National Forest in California spared some of the world’s largest andoldest trees but continued its rapid spread in another direction, fireinformation officials said.
A 45-year-old California woman was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion ofinadvertently igniting the runaway fire in the national forest while cooking hotdogs over a campfire, a forest service official said. Peri Van Brunt remained in custody but had not been charged with a crime as ofThursday morning, federal prosecutors said. If criminal charges are filedagainst Van Brunt, she will be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Fresno, saidCarl Faller, chief assistant U.S. attorney for Fresno. Investigators believe Van Brunt accidentally set the now 57,000-acre (23,070hectares) McNalley fire on Sunday afternoon near a resort in Johnsondale, about130 miles (209 km) north of Los Angeles, then left the park.
The fire has blackened the underbrush-choked slopes of the Kern River valley,which bisects the Sequoia National Forest, and threatens groves of centuries-oldsequoias, including General Sherman, the world’s largest tree by volume at 274feet (84 metres) tall and 36 feet (11 metres) in diameter. The fast-moving blazegrew by 7,000 acres (2,833 hectares) overnight but by morning was 5 percentcontained, said U.S. Fire Service spokeswoman Mary Grim.
More than 1,500 fire personnel battled 200-feet-tall sheets of flames that camewithin a half-mile of two famed stand of sequoias – Pack Saddle Grove and theTrail of 100 Giants – but changed direction before reaching the trees or about200 homes that were threatened, Grim said. “We’ve had some good luck withfire – it’s not very active along western flank where residences and the giantsequoias are,” Grim said. “We have been able to get some containmenton the western side.”
The fire torched a large portion of the Sequoia National Monument, which lieswithin the national forest and is home to groves of giant sequoia trees. Themajestic trees, which grow only in a narrow belt of the Sierra Nevada Mountains,grow to heights of more than 300 feet (91 meters) and can live longer than 3,200years, according to forestry officials. Although the giant trees withstoodcenturies of fires, forestry officials feared their thick bark cannot withstandthe superheated mammoth blazes that have plagued the western United States thisfire season as a result of years of drought.
Federal emergency management officials said on Wednesday that wildfires haveblackened more than 6.7 million acres across the nation this fire season – twicethe annual average in recent years. The cost of fighting the McNalley blaze,which destroyed a resort in Johnsondale and forced the evacuations of about1,000 campers and residents, topped $2.8 million on Wednesday, said AshleeSchultz, a Sequoia National Forest spokeswoman.