A parched West bears the scars of wildfires
BISHOP, CALIF. — Crews stayed on the offensive against major blazes around California and other Western states Sunday, a day marked by an epic fire in Utah and evacuations of hundreds of homes in Washington, as well as a helicopter crash that hurt two firefighters in Santa Barbara County.
But firefighters' efforts also yielded progress in California that permitted the return home of 75 to 100 evacuated Inyo County residents, as well as travelers who had been stranded earlier in the weekend by fires that arced across U.S. Highway 395, a key thoroughfare to resort spots in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
The dozens of fires across the West included Utah's largest-ever wildfire, at 283,000 acres, as well as a brush fire near Wenatchee, Wash., that led to the evacuation of 250 to 270 homes.
Other Western blazes — vindicating widespread predictions that the summer heat and parched landscapes would yield a ferocious fire season through the region — scorched parts of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.
In Nevada, about 1,500 evacuees from Winnemucca were allowed home hours after a wildfire shut down Interstate 80, destroyed an electrical substation, delayed trains and killed livestock.
A tragic lightning-sparked blaze also struck the Great Plains. Flames raced out of a canyon in South Dakota's Black Hills, leading to the death of a homeowner who was overcome while trying retrieve personal belongings, and also destroying 27 homes and charring nine square miles.
The deaths of two Californians were also linked to the fires. Roy Rex Redmon, 68, and his wife, Mary Ann, 65, of Rowland Heights perished Saturday after smoke from one of the Utah fires obscured visibility on Interstate 15, causing a chain-reaction collision, authorities said.
In California, firefighters gained ground on the two major lightning-sparked blazes — together known as the Inyo Complex fire — in the Inyo National Forest.
By Sunday evening, the fires overall were about 15% contained and together had burned about 34,000 acres, authorities said.
Fire officials confirmed the loss of one home and several other structures, and said they expect to announce a higher tally today.
The California Highway Patrol said traffic was moving smoothly Sunday on Highway 395 a day after officials closed as much as 115 miles of the artery tracing the eastern spine of the Sierra.
For weekend travelers whose trips were dependent on Highway 395, Sunday was a day of comparing notes on how close they came to beating Saturday's roadway shutdown that extended at times from Bishop on the north to Pearsonville on the south.
On their way to Bishop from their home in Upland, Bob and Pat Mayhall were stuck for two hours in a long line of cars and trucks at a roadblock outside Independence, a community at the heart of the fires about 185 miles north of Los Angeles that was partly evacuated Saturday. "If we hadn't stopped for lunch, we would have made it through," Bob Mayhall lamented.
The couple pulled over and waited two hours, as others sat along the highway in lawn chairs. The Mayhalls got the last space at an RV park in Lone Pine, where they spent the night. "We were lucky," Pat Mayhall said. "We are self-contained."
For firefighters, although temperatures were in the mid-90s and breezes picked up in the afternoon, the weather "kind of turned in our favor a bit" compared to conditions that fanned the fast-moving fire Friday and Saturday, said John Louth, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
"The humidity has gone up," he said, adding that crews spent the day putting in fire lines. Earlier in the weekend, he said, "the fire was just running and gobbling up countryside."
The army of firefighters at the blazes grew to 863, nearly double the force from a day earlier, as reinforcements poured into the area. They were supported by eight helicopters and nine air-tankers, dropping water and fire retardant.
"At this point, we're starting to make excellent progress on containment of the fire," Louth said. "The bulk of the resources has arrived."
In his 20 years working in the Inyo National Forest, Louth said he has never seen such dry conditions. Before the fire started Friday, he said he was walking outside and "the pine needles were crunching under me rather than bending and giving way to my weight."
Fire officials said today's weather could spell trouble, with possible thunderstorms and erratic wind conditions forecast.
"We always know that, a heartbeat away, that fire can change from a tame fire to a roaring juggernaut coming down the hill at 60 mph," said Jim Wilkins, an Inyo National Forest spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
One firefighter suffered a slight injury Sunday, bringing the total hurt battling the blaze to four, authorities said.
The first three, who work for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, were part of a two-engine team forced to take shelter after being overrun by flames Saturday afternoon near Independence.
Officials said that two Los Angeles Department of Water and Power transmission lines that supply the city were threatened by the blaze, but as of nightfall none of the facilities, including the Big Pine power plant, appeared to have been damaged.
Benett Kessler, a longtime Independence resident and the owner of KSRW-TV Channel 33 and KSRW-FM (92.5), said she had packed up memorabilia, clothing and her pet cat, Tuxedo, in case she needed to flee.
"It's very hard to predict," she said. "Yesterday morning, it didn't look that bad. And when the wind came up, it just started rapidly advancing toward the town…. We felt that we were going to lose everything. But the wind amazingly just stopped blowing and the firefighting efforts became more aggressive."
Elsewhere in California, Santa Barbara County's 6,500-acre Zaca fire that began on the Fourth of July was still burning in the Los Padres National Forest northeast of the Santa Ynez Valley and was 30% contained.
An army of 1,918 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and local crews from as far away as Los Angeles County were battling the blaze, which was only 30% contained Sunday morning.
They were aided by 16 helicopters, six air tankers and three other aircraft. The pilot and co-pilot of one of the helicopters suffered minor injuries Sunday afternoon in an accident while their helicopter was lifting off, said fire information officer Andy Yamamoto. The unidentified crew members were taken by ambulance to a local hospital, and the cause of the accident was under investigation.
In all, 13 people have been injured fighting the Zaca fire. The blaze, burning in chaparral and oak woodlands, forced the closure of part of the San Rafael Wilderness area.
U.S. Forest Service officials said the moisture level in the vegetation is extremely low, at levels not usually seen until late summer. The fire was caused by sparks that flew from metal-grinding equipment used to repair a pipe on private property, officials said.
In Northern California, the Wheeler fire was burning in the Plumas National Forest west of Highway 395.
Authorities said that as of 6 p.m. it had charred nearly 18,100 acres of pine forest and grassland on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and was 21% contained.
"We don't have our arms around it yet," said Angela Dillingham, fire information officer for Plumas National Forest.
More than 1,300 firefighters were battling the Wheeler fire, aided by nine aircraft. No structures had been lost, and there were no injuries reported Sunday, Dillingham said.
Cabins and campgrounds at Antelope Lake, about 30 miles south of Susanville, were evacuated after lightning strikes sparked a series of fires Thursday.
But campers will be escorted back for short visits into the area beginning today to pick up belongings, if conditions permit. There was no estimate of when the fire will be contained.
The news was better in northern Los Angeles County. An 815-acre brush fire that began Saturday north of the Antelope Valley Freeway in the Agua Dulce area was 100% contained Sunday, with the 400 firefighters benefiting from somewhat milder weather.
The fire closed Vasquez Rocks County Park and briefly prompted the evacuation of the residents of up to 300 homes in the area before they were allowed to return Saturday night.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. One firefighter was slightly hurt Sunday, bringing the total number of injuries to five, all minor. No structures have been burned.
Cart reported from Bishop, and Leonard and Rabin reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Steve Hymon and Stuart Silverstein, along with the Associated Press, contributed to this report.
BS Ranch Perspective
Thank God For the great work that the USFS took in fighting this Fire along with Independence Volunteer Fire Department, Bishop Volunteer Fire Department, Big Pine Volunteer's, Lone Pine Volunteer's and I am sure that the Volunteers from the Chalfant Valley Volunteer Fire Department also had some Equipment and men there along with Mammoth Lakes and June Lake Fire Departments. Not to mention the many men and woman that came from Southern California and the air Planes and Helicopters that were dumping water and Phos-Chec down on the fires on the Inyo Complex Fires. I just pray that they get them totally under control soon and the people that live in Independence are able to get back to their homes and their Livestock is all okay.
I truely wish I could move back home to the Owen's valley, but becuase I am under a doctors Care, since my accident that Occurred to me while I was working, I really feel that I am stuck here, but I am stuck living where my Medical Plan is Offered, and right now it is in the Southern California.