Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 7 News List

US firefighters battle to contain large wildfires


Thousands of firefighters aided by aircraft worked in fierce heat to keep two big wildfires from gaining a foothold in the heavily populated San Bernardino Mountains, where millions of trees killed by drought and bark beetles could provide explosive fuel.

The lightning-caused fires, covering about 276km2 combined, merged on Friday afternoon. Wildfires can grow more unpredictable after merging, but in this case "there was no cataclysmic event," US Forest Service spokesman Jim Wilkins said.

The larger of the two fires has destroyed 45 homes and 118 outbuildings and remained a potential threat to 1,500 homes, said Kristel Johnson of the US Forest Service. The 21,200-hectare blaze started a week ago on the Mojave Desert floor below the eastern flank of the San Bernardinos, and was 20 percent contained.

The smaller fire had burned 3,320 hectares, mostly at higher elevations. Though heavy smoke continued to fill the sky on Friday, wind was pushing that fire away from the mountaintop Big Bear resort region and onto areas already burned by the larger fire.

Several thousand people live in and around Big Bear Lake, which went through its last big scare in Southern California's onslaught of devastating wildfires in 2003.

"There's no danger to Big Bear residents, there's no imminent threat at this time," said Tracey Martinez, a San Bernardino County Fire Department spokeswoman. However, about 75 scattered homes and a fish hatchery remained in the fire's path.

Despite low humidity, steep, broken slopes and 41?C temperatures, firefighting efforts on Friday were in "great shape," Wilkins said. About 2,900 firefighters and three dozen aircraft were fighting the blazes.

Still, fire did burn onto ridges with scattered trees, which went up like torches underneath heavy air tankers that dropped fire retardant.

But officials were concerned that the weather will challenge firefighters in the coming days. Fire heat rising into the atmosphere could produce dry lightning.

"That will not only start new fires, but also strike firefighters," National Weather Service forecaster Robert Balfour said.

Concerns about what would happen when the fires merged had focused on the possibility of an ultra-hot fire front that could create its own unpredictable winds, but a merger also can create firebreaks by quickly burning up brush in each fire's path.

"They're going to burn each other out in that area," Martinez predicted.

In Pioneertown, a former Western movie locale where the larger fire burned several homes this week, a 20-person search and rescue team headed out on Friday to look for a 57-year-old man missing since Tuesday. The wife of Jerry Guthrie reported him missing.

Firefighters in southern Montana, mostly east of Billings, were battling a string of fires burning more than 56,000 hectares. The estimate on the largest fire nearly tripled overnight, fire information officer Paula Rosenthal said.

More than 254 structures, including 125 homes, were threatened by the fires, and another blaze near Ashland destroyed at least four buildings. Firefighters were close on Friday to containing a wildfire that destroyed five buildings earlier this week.

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