Thursday, June 23, 2005

ENV: Wildfire Season

Major wildfires burn in California, Arizona
Evacuee: 'It's a helpless feeling'
Thursday, June 23, 2005; Posted: 7:30 a.m. EDT (11:30 GMT)


MORONGO VALLEY, California (AP) -- The first major wildfire of the summer raced across more than 5,500 acres of tinder-dry desert brush, destroying at least seven homes, threatening hundreds of others and sending residents of a sparsely populated Mojave Desert community fleeing for their lives.

A second fire, about 35 miles away, burned across more than 2,000 acres but did not threaten any structures, authorities said. The larger blaze started when a single home went up in flames Wednesday afternoon and those flames quickly spread into nearby desert brush and tall field grass.

Elsewhere, fire crews fought back fast-moving flames approaching Arizona communities near the Tonto National Forest. Two lightning-sparked brush fires blackened 12,500-acres, forcing the evacuation of 175 people from homes in the area. No injuries were reported.

"It's a helpless feeling," said one evacuee, Bill Victor. "It's something to see the flames come over and shocking to realize that you could lose everything. It's a feeling everyone should have in their lives once to get their priorities straight."

In California, wildfires hopscotched up and down hillsides and canyons about 100 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The fires threatened as many as 700 homes for a time, and hundreds of people fled their homes, some with nothing, others with just a handful of possessions.

As her husband, Tom, hosed down their house, Ann Lee grabbed their birth certificates and medicines and rounded up their six cats. She then turned to him and said, "Let's get out of here because even if the fire takes everything we own, I don't plan on dying here."

The couple, who headed to an evacuation center in Yucca Valley, had no idea if their home had been spared.

"I'm worried, but it's not going to do me any good throwing a fit or crying," said Lee, 46. "It's in God's hands."

By midnight only a few dozen homes remained under threat, with much of the fire having moved into the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, a sparsely populated wilderness area. Earlier in the day, part of the fire had also moved into Joshua Tree National Park.

Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in San Bernardino, said the blaze was 10 percent contained. No estimate for full containment was available.

More than 300 firefighters were tackling the blaze, with more reinforcements being called in, Peters said. One firefighter suffered a minor knee injury.

Among the homes destroyed was a trailer that Julie Brunette shared with her husband on a horse ranch.

"We pretty much lost everything," she said. "Most everything we had wasn't very valuable but it was memory stuff, pictures of our grandkids."

Weather helped spread the fire rapidly, with sustained winds of about 10 mph and afternoon temperatures that topped 100 degrees on the second day of summer. As the flames raged out of control, those evacuated included residents of a mobile home park and children at a day care center.

"I'm very scared right now. I just want to get out of here as fast as I can," said Morongo Valley Mobile Manner manager Janice Cochrane.

Staffers at Sharon's Playhouse Child Care drove two carloads of children to a safe rendezvous point where they were turned over to their worried parents.

"I let them know that we were in no danger," said Sharon Aiken, the center's owner.
In neighboring Riverside County, a fire burning in the San Jacinto area had blackened more than 2,000 acres.

Firefighters aided by aircraft and bulldozers were carving fire lines and no homes were immediately threatened, said Cassandra Burleson of the Riverside County Fire Department-California Department of Forestry.

Wildfires raced through a national forest in Arizona and a desert community in Southern California on Wednesday, burning several homes and threatening hundreds more in an outbreak fueled by gusting winds and scorching temperatures.

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