Maryland Firefighters Head to California As Fires Advance to Big Sur

Maryland FirefightersHead to California As Fires Advance to Big Sur

27 June 2008

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USA — Nine Maryland Department of Natural Resources firefighters trained inbattling wildfires are heading to California.

The nine are traveling to a federal park near Redding, California, where atimber and brush fire is threatening communication towers and power lines andcould consume park cabins and historic buildings.

The team left from BWI Marshall Airport Friday morning and are expected tospend two weeks fighting a timber and brush fire in the Whiskeytown NationalRecreation Area.

Four are from the Maryland Forest Service, three from the Wildlife andHeritage Service, and one each from the Maryland Park Service and the MarylandConservation Corps. All are certified wildland firefighters.

Meanwhile, firefighters in California bolstered their defenses Friday againstan expanding wildfire that threatened coastal homes in this storied tourist town,while bracing for fresh lightning strikes that could ignite new fires acrossNorthern California.

Nearly 1,100 fires were burning just in the region from San Jose to theOregon border, said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.That excluded the two gigantic blazes that have charred some 134 square miles inthe Los Padres forest.

The fire closest to the legendary cliffs and funky getaways of Big Sur wasabout a mile from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at the heart of the region, saidCurtis Vincent, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest.

The massive lightning-sparked wildfire marched toward the town of Big Sur onThursday, while firefighters rushed to protect about 575 threatened homes andhistoric structures.

Overnight, firefighters reinforced their fire lines near homes and businessesin the area, moving in heavy engines and more personnel, Vincent said. The blazeremained just 3 percent contained, but it was growing parallel to the coast —not toward inhabited areas, he said.

The renowned Esalen Institute, a retreat known for its natural hot springs,did not appear immediately threatened, but it canceled workshops all the waythrough the July 4 weekend because of falling ash and poor air quality.

The nearly 1,100 fires in remote Northern California burned primarily inHumboldt, Shasta and Trinity counties, Kirchner said. No people appearedimmediately in jeopardy, though there are homes scattered through the forestareas, he said.

The number of fires topped 1,000, up from 800 two days ago, because smoky airhad hampered efforts to track all the blazes, Kirchner said.

“That’s part of our problem — all of Northern California has beensocked in for days, and aircraft haven’t been able to see the ground,”Kirchner said. It is firefighters on the ground who have provided most of theintelligence on new fires, he added.

Some 11,000 firefighters from 41 states are battling the blazes. Authoritiesput the firefighters on notice that they might be abruptly deployed to new firesexpected to spring up with new lightning storms already under way.

“Our No. 1 priority is we want to stop any new, small fires,”Kirchner said.

Last weekend, nearly 8,000 lightning strikes sparked about 800 fires acrossNorthern California. There were about 70 lightning strikes Thursday in thesouthern Sierra Nevada, with increased lightning forecast through Sunday.

Near Big Sur, the fire has destroyed 16 homes and two outbuildings sincebreaking out Saturday, and officials have issued voluntary evacuation notices toresidents in 75 homes along a ridge threatened by the blaze.

Authorities closed a long stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway threatened bythe blaze, shutting off access to several lodges, restaurants and art galleriesthat depend on tourist traffic. Motorists who had planned to drive south alongthe coast were forced to turn around.

Dutch travelers Joost Ueberbach, 28, and Gemma Arts, 27, had wanted to drivethrough Big Sur on their way to Los Angeles from San Francisco in their rentedChevrolet Cobalt when they ran into the roadblock Thursday.

“We knew there was a fire somewhere, but we didn’t know the road wasblocked,” Ueberbach said. “We had hoped to see the nice views of thecoastline. I guess it’s just bad luck.”

A popular area along the towering cliffs of the central California coast, BigSur is also a destination for generations of American writers and artists.

Fire crews on Thursday beat back flames that threatened a small roadsidelibrary named after “Tropic of Cancer” author Henry Miller, who livedin Big Sur for many years.

Just down the road, firefighters maintained fire lines and doused flames nearthe home of Hal Newell, who’d been forced to flee five days earlier.

“I feel real glad to still have a place to live,” said Newell, whohas lived in Big Sur since he was born in 1938.

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