Fire­fight­ers bat­tle to save homes in Cal­i­for­nia

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - QUEBEC -

Fire­fight­ers worked Fri­day to keep a grow­ing South­ern Cal­i­for­nia for­est fire that is feed­ing on dry brush and trees from reach­ing foothill neigh­bour­hoods a day af­ter flames roared to new fe­roc­ity and came within yards of homes.

Governor Jerry Brown de­clared a state of emer­gency for Orange and River­side coun­ties as the fire carved its way along ridges in the Cleve­land Na­tional For­est.

Some hill­sides were al­lowed to burn un­der the watch­ful eyes of fire­fight­ers as a way to re­duce fuel and make it harder for flames to jump road­ways into com­mu­ni­ties if winds pick up again.

Air­craft dropped liq­uid that sup­presses flames as peo­ple sprayed their houses with wa­ter from garden hoses when the blaze south of Los An­ge­les flared again Thurs­day evening, pro­pelled by gusts of 30 kilo- me­tres an hour.

Shan­non Hicks, 59, de­fied an evac­u­a­tion or­der and watched in awe as fire­fight­ers faced down a storm of flames that de­scended to­ward her street in the city of Lake Elsi­nore.

“It looked like a tornado. The flames were just twirling and twirling ,” she said .“I thought, there’ s no way they’re sav­ing my house. But some­how they did.”

Hun­dreds more fire­fight­ers joined the bat­tle, bring­ing the to­tal to1,200. The so-called Holy Fire has chewed through 72 square kilo­me­tres of dense cha­parral and is only par­tially con­tained.

It’s one of nearly 20 blazes across the state, which is see­ing ear­lier, longer and more de­struc­tive wild­fire sea­sons be­cause of drought, warmer weather at­trib­uted to cli­mate change and home con­struc­tion deeper into forests.

Fire­fight­ers aided by cooler weather have made good pro- gress against a blaze burn­ing for nearly a month near Yosemite Na­tional Park in the north­ern part of the state. The park was set to re­open Tues­day af­ter a two-week clo­sure, park spokesman Scott Ged­i­man said Fri­day.

Vis­i­tors should ex­pect limited hours and vis­i­tor ser­vices next week as the park re­turns to nor­mal, he said. The blaze didn’t reach the heart of the park and in­stead burned in re­mote ar­eas, mak­ing roads in­ac­ces­si­ble and pol­lut­ing the area with smoke.

The clo­sure dealt a fi­nan­cial blow to Yosemite at the height of the sum­mer sea­son and caused up­heaval for thou­sands of tourists whose sum­mer trips were can­celled.

Of­fi­cials also gained more con­trol over two other ma­jor North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires, in­clud­ing the largest in recorded state his­tory.

In the south, Cleve­land Na­tional For­est of­fi­cials tweeted that the flames out­side Los An­ge­les were grow­ing as fast as crews can build lines to con­tain them.

“We con­tinue to ac­tively en­gage, but can­not get ahead of the fire,” the state­ment said.

Tere­sita Reyes was among some 20,000 peo­ple forced to evac­u­ate, say­ing she was at­tend­ing a wed­ding Wed­nes­day when she re­ceived the or­der. The 51year-old state health in­spec­tor con­grat­u­lated the cou­ple and left qui­etly for her house in the city of Lake Elsi­nore to grab im­por­tant doc­u­ments. Since then, Ms. Reyes and her hus­band have been stay­ing at a ho­tel with a faulty air con­di­tioner while their three dogs and cat are holed up at the fam­ily’s plumb­ing busi­ness.

“It is nerve-wrack­ing and un­real,” she said. “We were on pins and nee­dles for a lit­tle while there be­cause it got real close.”

The fire was de­lib­er­ately set. A res­i­dent of the small com­mu­nity of Holy Jim Canyon in the na­tion- al for­est has been charged with ar­son and other crimes and ap­peared in a jailhouse court­room Fri­day.

For­rest Clark, 51, made sev­eral out­bursts, claim­ing his life was be­ing threat­ened. A court com­mis­sioner postponed his ar­raign­ment un­til Aug. 17 and or­dered bail to re­main at US$1-mil­lion.

“May I pay for that im­me­di­ately?” asked Mr. Clark, who could face life in prison if con­victed.

At one point, Mr. Clark cov­ered his face with his long hair and later stared di­rectly at a cam­era pro­vid­ing a video feed to re­porters out­side the court­room.

Michael Mil­li­gan, chief of the Holy Jim Vol­un­teer Fire Depart­ment, has told the Orange County Reg­is­ter that Mr. Clark had a decade-long feud with neigh­bours and had sent him threat­en­ing emails last week, in­clud­ing one that said, “This place will burn.”

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