Overseas crews coming to battle Calif. wildfires

Overseas crews coming to battle Calif. wildfires

12 July 2008

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USA — As hundreds of blazes continue to char California, additional National Guard troops and overseas crews are being called in to assist exhausted firefighters, and President Bush has scheduled a visit to the state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday ordered 2,000 more National Guard troops to join the 400 already on firefighting duty. Australia, Canada, Greece, Mexico and New Zealand are also sending firefighters and equipment, federal officials said.

“We are stretched thin, and our firefighters are exhausted,” Schwarzenegger said. “The fire season as we’ve known it is pretty much over. … Now we have fire season all year round.”

Federal officials said they would send more equipment and personnel to California. The federal government has committed $100 million and 80 percent of its firefighting resources to California, said Glen Cannon, an assistant administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve put a significant amount of resources there, and we’ll continue to add resources until we bring the fires under control,” Cannon said.

Meanwhile, President Bush scheduled a visit to survey the damage from the wildfires that have burned more than 1,100 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes.

White House spokesman Trey Bohn did not say where Bush would go to get his briefing on Thursday, when the president also plans to attend a private Republican fundraising event in Napa.

Investigators believe the hundreds of blazes that have tormented the state for the last three weeks claimed their first civilian casualty in the rural Sierra Nevada foothills this week, although an autopsy will be needed to confirm the cause of death.

The badly burned body was found in the smoldering ruins of one of several homes destroyed by the wind-whipped blaze that swept through Concow, about 90 miles north of Sacramento.

The fire was so hot that it melted beer bottles, mason jars and windows into puddles of glass. Cans of food had swelled then exploded from the heat. Crews also found the remains of at least two dogs.

Concow, where 50 homes were destroyed, was under a mandatory evacuation order when flames approached the community early Tuesday, “but unfortunately not everyone chose to leave and you cannot force them to,” said Sgt. Steven Pelton, a Butte County deputy coroner-sheriff. “This appears to be one of those people.”

Tom Tirey, 49, who has lived in the area for 10 years, said he rode out the fire despite orders to evacuate, spending more than two hours in a hog-trough while the blaze flared around him. He survived, but his trailer and barn didn’t.

“We’d been through so many evacuations and false warnings. You cry wolf too many times. This time it really did it,” he said.

State officials said the current fire season has seen the most fires burning at one time in recorded California history. Aided by unusually dry and hot conditions, wildfires have burned more than 1,100 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes statewide since a lightning storm ignited 1,460 separate blazes on June 21. By Friday, more than 320 fires still were active, state officials said.

Considering the scope of the wildfires, there so far have been few fatalities and major injuries, officials said. During the first fire in Paradise last month, an elderly woman died after suffering a heart attack while voluntarily leaving her home. On July 2, a volunteer firefighter collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County and died at a hospital a day later.

In Butte County, crews made progress Friday in containing a blaze burning in the mountains near the town of Paradise, where an earlier fire last month destroyed 74 homes. On Friday evening, officials downgraded the evacuation order that had affected about 10,000 residents since Tuesday and told people they could return home as long as they remained ready to leave on short notice.

Elsewhere in California, state transportation officials on Friday evening reopened a slice of coastal Highway 1 that had been closed for more than two weeks as a wildfire bore down on the tourist town of Big Sur. The full, 15-mile stretch of the highway is scheduled to reopen on Sunday, officials said.

The Big Sur fire was about 41 percent contained Friday after having burned 170 square miles and destroyed 26 homes.

Farther south, a separate blaze in Santa Barbara County that prompted mass evacuations last weekend was 80 percent contained after blackening more than 15 square miles. At the southern tip of Sequoia National Forest, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, a 54-square-mile blaze was almost one-third contained.

A letup in the wind aided firefighters in eastern Washington state battling a wildfire that erupted Thursday in a heavily wooded part of the Spokane Valley. It destroyed at least 13 houses and forced 200 residents to evacuate. No injuries have been reported.

The cause of the suburban Spokane fire, which grew to nearly 2 square miles, was not immediately known.

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