Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

California prepares for more wildfires

BREATHER Firefighters cut buffer zones as the devastating forest fires subsided, but authorities warned that they could flare up again at any time

AP , BIG BEAR LAKE, CALIFORNIA

Forestry worker David Gribas falls burnt trees on a property destroyed by fire in the community of Cedar Glen in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles on Friday. Thousands of firefighters have been battling wildfires throughout southern California for the past week.

PHOTO: AFP

Hundreds of firefighters battling Southern California's wildfires used a break in the weather on Friday to bulldoze buffer zones around mountain communities in case the heat and fierce winds return.

"We've got a sleeping giant out there," Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline said.

Fog, lower temperatures and lighter winds since Thursday have helped firefighters make progress against the fires that have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 2,800 homes and burned nearly 300,000 hectares across Southern California over the past week.

The other major community still threatened was Big Bear Lake, a resort town in the San Bernardino Mountains northeast of Los Angeles. A blaze that has scorched 27,600 hectares and destroyed hundreds of homes moved to within 16km of the town, emptied out of some 15,000 people earlier in the week.

"The fire is just creeping around, not making these big runs that we had seen," Exline said.

But forecasters said the heat and dry desert winds that whipped the flames into infernos could return early next week, and so fire crews raced to cut nearly 50km of firebreaks to protect communities around the lake.

They cleared brush and trees from zones 30m wide to deprive the fire of fuel. The firelines were as close as 45m to some homes.

"This is an opportunity," Exline said. "We can get in there in the next 48 hours to fight the fire on our own terms, without the forces of the weather."

Meanwhile, California's biggest blaze -- a 110,000-hectare fire burning in the mountains northeast of San Diego -- was 65 percent contained, and firefighters said the threat had eased against Julian, an old Gold Rush town that is now a weekend getaway known for its apple orchards.

In all, seven fires were still burning across four counties. Winds have carried the smoke as far north and east as the Plains and the Great Lakes, as satellite images from NASA have shown.

While thousands have fled the Big Bear area, a few people stayed behind to protect their property.

Kelly Bragdon sat at the bar at the Log Cabin Restaurant, sipping a beer and watching news reports of flames blazing through the forest.

"I've got too much to lose to leave here," Bragdon said. "I don't think we're jeopardizing anybody's lives but our own, just trying to save what we've got, everything we've worked for."

Nearly 13,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Governor Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.

The state is spending an estimated US$9 million a day fighting the wildfires. The total cost of fighting the blazes could reach US$200 million, while the blazes take a US$2 billion toll on the California economy, state officials said.

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