Blaze chars 150,000 acres


SAN BERNADINO FOREST, CALIF. (Sept. 5, 1999) -- The response community remains on alert as fires rage in southern California and other western states, threatening populated areas. More than 10,000 firefighters are battling blazes covering some 150,000 acres -- from ski resorts to forests to desert land -- throughout the west.

The most menacing blaze, dubbed the "Willow Fire" for a nearby river, has scorched more than 60,000 acres in the San Bernadino National Forest 75 miles northeast of Los Angeles. More than 30 structures - nearly half of them homes -- have succumbed to the flames, said Bobby Martin, public information officer at the San Bernadino County Emergency Operations Center.

Firefighters throughout the west are supported by 573 engines, 102 helicopters, 14 air tankers, and 1,578 related personnel, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported, and eight military C-130 aircraft are assisting firefighters in California. But the Willow Fire is still only 35 percent contained, said Martin.

Some ski resorts have become small cities of feeding stations and medical support for firefighters.

Although no mandatory evacuations have been ordered yet, fire continues to threaten the Apple Valley, Lake Arrowhead, and Big Bear communities, and many areas of the forest remain closed. Seven firefighters suffered minor injuries, although no deaths have been reported, Martin added.

In response to the Willow Fire, the Presbyterian Church of the Valley in Apple Valley was opened as an emergency service center for the High Desert Chapter of the American Red Cross, said Executive Director Sherril D'Espyne.

The church had an existing relationship with the Red Cross chapter because many of its members had undergone disaster preparedness training, she added. Volunteers from the Salvation Army also assisted in initial response.

Damage assessment teams visiting areas charred by the inferno estimate that 12 to 15 homes have been damaged or destroyed.

An American Humane Association (AHA) emergency animal relief team was dispatched, with an 80-foot disaster relief vehicle dubbed "Animal Planet Rescue," to help animals affected by the fires. "As people are forced out of their homes and into shelters, they need to leave their pets at a separate location," said Dick Green, manager of disaster relief for AHA.

"Our operation will be focused on helping the community care for these animals and to set up a triage unit for any injured animals brought in."

Though the destruction is low so far compared to other major wildfires, some residents have already lost everything.

"Something that was really poignant for me was looking at the posts that would indicate the number of the house, and the post is totally charred. And you can see the natural wood sticking out at the bottom, however at the top you've got this burnt up area. It's a devastating sight to look at and to live through," D'Espyne said.

In northern California, President Clinton has ordered federal emergency aid for Butte, Shasta, Tehama, and Tuolumne counties, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There, four large fires are consuming a collective 44,000 acres, according to the NIFC, and FEMA reported one fire-related death.

Shelters that opened in the initial phase of the response there have been able to close as displaced families found housing with relatives and friends, or in hotels and motels.

FEMA has also ordered emergency management aid in Texas, where fires pose an extreme threat to populated areas. Severe drought conditions have sparked some 217 wildfires in the state that have burned more than 23,300 acres.

Elsewhere, a 35,000-acre fire started by a downed power line in southern Idaho is 90 percent contained, and smaller fires continue to burn in Montana and Utah.

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