Aug 16 / 2001
18,000 firefighters battle blazes in West Crews struggle to gain control of 41 fires that burned at least 315,000 acres yesterday
Applegate, Placer County -- Traffic flowed again on Interstate 80 through the Sierra Nevada last night after firefighters beat back a wildfire that brought the busy freeway to a standstill for most of the day.
That victory was among the few bright spots in a long, hard day for 18,000 firefighters who braved hellish conditions while battling 41 major fires in eight Western states.
More than 315,000 acres were ablaze yesterday, mostly on vast tracts of federal land in California, Nevada and Oregon, and firefighters from as far away as Alaska and Pennsylvania were being called to the fire lines.
Most fires were sparked by lightning strikes and fueled by bone-dry timber, brush and grass. Adding to the problem were picture-perfect fire conditions: high temperatures, low humidity and stiff winds.
"We're not getting much help from anywhere," said George Lennon of the Northwest Fire Coordination Center in Portland, Ore. "There's very little moisture, and the moisture we are getting contributes to the thunderstorms that bring the dry lightning that starts these fires."
Firefighters are taking two steps back for every step forward. They extinguished a dozen blazes on Monday, only to see 18 new ones yesterday and the looming threat of nasty electrical storms that could spark yet more fires.
In California, the biggest problem was a 2,341-acre fire at Emigrant Gap on the western slope of the Sierra about 70 miles northeast of Sacramento.
At one point, several wood posts supporting guardrails were burning, and small fires erupted on the grassy median. Firefighters scrambled to keep the fire from jumping the freeway but lost that battle at 2:40 p.m.
With traffic backing up, many motorists backtracked to Auburn and took scenic Highway 49, which was soon packed. Most seemed resigned to the inconvenience and went with the flow.
"We're on vacation and trying to make the best of it," said Max Olson of Idaho, who was traveling with his wife, April. "We might as well enjoy Lake Tahoe."
Truckers weren't so cheerful. Many found Highway 49, a winding two-lane highway, too narrow and congested to navigate safely.
"Two times I tried to go on 49, but I came back," said Hamit Tiftikci, who was hauling lettuce from Salinas to Toronto. "I'm scared to go that way. That's why I'm stuck here."
With little else to do, dozens of truckers parked their rigs at the side of the road or in nearby parking lots to sit things out. Some, like Don Curry, were stranded for more than a day.
"I get paid by the mile," Curry, of Lewiston, Idaho, said as he sat in the cab of a rig loaded with lumber bound for Pennsylvania. "I've lost a few hundred dollars sitting here."
While truckers fumed, 1,115 firefighters braved searing heat and rugged terrain as they battled the blaze. Helicopters dropped bucket after bucket of bright-red flame retardant on the fire, coating the highway with a slimy goo.
Meanwhile, the largest of the West's fires raged in Ravendale (Lassen County), about 30 miles northeast of Susanville. The 62,900-acre blaze was about 55 percent contained last night, and authorities said they hoped to conquer it by Friday.
"The wind has let up," said fire spokesman Jeff Fontana. "We're making progress strengthening our fire lines. As things have calmed down, we've been able to make some really good progress."
Elsewhere in California yesterday:
-- Two major fires continued roaring in Modoc National Forest. The bigger of the two, dubbed the Blue Complex because of its proximity to Blue Lake, has torched 30,000 acres of timber and brush about 13 miles east of Likely (Lassen County). It was 10 percent contained last night.
"The Blue fire just keeps growing and growing," said fire spokesman Scott Brayton. "We're still seeing extreme fire behavior. We're going to be here for a long time."
Firefighters scrambled yesterday to keep the fire from entering Jess Valley,
where there are a half-dozen homes and a bed-and-breakfast.
The smaller blaze was actually a group of 40 to 50 fires that have consumed 4,609 acres of juniper and sagebrush near Canby, about 23 miles northwest of Alturas (Modoc County). Many of the smallest fires were left untended simply because fire crews were stretched so thin.
-- A 12,957-acre fire in the Mendocino National Forest near Stonyford burned into the Snow Mountain Wilderness Area, and fire officials pushed their containment estimate from tomorrow to next Monday. That fire destroyed 10 homes and 16 buildings earlier this week and was 52 percent contained yesterday.
The fire has destroyed two homes, but 1,253 firefighters kept it from encroaching on the Ashland watershed, saving the city's water supply. Authorities expect the fire to grow because there is plenty of fuel in its path, and it remains the top priority among firefighters in Oregon.
More than 140 National Guard troops are suiting up now that Gov. John Kitzhaber has declared a state of emergency. They could be on the lines as early as Friday, officials said.
In Nevada, officials declared victory over a fire that blackened 82,000- acres in the high desert about 200 miles northeast of Reno, but much of north and east central Nevada remained ablaze. Roughly two-thirds of the acreage burning in the West is located in the Silver State.
San Francisco Chronicles
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