Sat, Jul 15, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Wildfires lay waste to homes in parts of California


A California Department of Forestry captain directs his fire crew during a backburn in Big Morongo Canyon while fighting the Sawtooth fire near Morongo Valley, California, on Thursday.


A 16,000-hectare fire chewed through desert wilderness after destroying 100 homes and buildings and was on course to possibly merge with a blaze in the San Bernardino National Forest.

The huge fire edged northwest toward the forest on Thursday, burning greasewood, Joshua trees, pinon pines and brush on the desert floor. Containment was just 20 percent. Eight kilometers away, a 2,800-hectare fire in the forest was 5 percent surrounded.

Governor Arnold Schwarzene-gger declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County to better coordinate and expedite state efforts to help people affected.

Evacuation orders were lifted for several communities, including the old Western film locale of Pioneertown, but new evacuations were ordered for dozens of homes in Morongo Valley, and residents of Burns Canyon and Rimrock remained unable to return home.

"We're very, very lucky," said Sandy Dugan, whose Pioneertown home still stood while the charred remains of others smoldered. "It's hard to see your neighbors' homes gone."

Authorities said the odor of smoke from the blazes 160km east of Los Angeles could be detected in Las Vegas and Ogden, Utah.

Fire officials said that both fires could link up on the desert floor. Higher up in the mountains, millions of dead trees carried the potential for even more destruction, but they were at least 24km from either fire.

Kevin Olson, deputy chief of operations in the headquarters of the California Department of Forestry, said it was possible "but not very likely at this time" that the fires would reach the timber stands.

The larger fire was ignited by lightning during the weekend and roared into an inferno on Tuesday, racing through tiny high desert communities. Forty-two houses, 55 other buildings and 91 vehicles were destroyed in Pioneertown and other communities near Yucca Valley.

About 1,350 firefighters worked the blaze with the help of bulldozers, helicopters and air tankers. Nine firefighters and two civilians have been treated for minor burns or smoke inhalation.

Pioneertown, established in the 1940s as a location for filming cowboy movies, lost none of its Western-style storefronts.

The two fires were each about 50km from Big Bear, one of several communities atop the San Bernardino Mountains that were evacuated when wildfires swept Southern California in 2003.

Those 15 fires were collectively the most devastating in recent state history, killing 22 people and destroying 3,640 homes.

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