Residents of rustic village flee 60,000-acre fire

RIDGECREST, Calif. - A wildfire raging in the rugged Sierra Nevada swept through a tiny community on the remote Kern Plateau, destroying eight homes as it swelled to more than 60,000 acres Sunday.

''The last folks in there were the firefighters and they headed out just in time to get out of the fire's way,'' said Kern County Fire Department spokesman Chuck Dickson.

The flames charred pine forest and brush as they spread from the Sequoia National Forest, gaining 10,000 overnight Saturday and threatening homes along the fire line about 120 miles north of Los Angeles on Sunday.

Firefighters estimated it will take nearly two weeks of digging to surround it, and there's no telling how much the fire will grow in the meantime, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Geri Adams.

The weather forecast for the area was for hotter and drier conditions combined with afternoon thunderstorms. ''That wind won't help us either,'' Adams said.

The Sierra Nevada blaze was just one of 50 fires burning about 488,273 acres across the nation Sunday, the National Fire Information Center said. In the west, wildfires continued to burn in Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

The homes burned in an area known as Pine Creek, which is considered part of a more broadly scattered community called Kennedy Meadows, Calif.

Ignoring an evacuation order, many of the popular tourist town's 43 residents moved horses and mobile home trailers to safety, then gathered at the general store to discuss their plans. Leona Hansen said she kept the store open because it is the only place with telephones.

''We're waiting for them to say, 'This is it. Get out of here.' And when they do, we'll be out of here in a flash. We're not going to be heroes,'' Hansen said.

About 1,350 firefighters with the help of nine helicopters, four air tankers, 13 bulldozers and 15 water tenders were fighting the blaze, which has cost more than $3 million, Adams said. Eight firefighters have been injured since the fire began July 22.

''We still have an outstanding order (to bring in more firefighters), but with all the other fires we have in the U.S., we're still waiting,'' she said.

Fires also burned on the Pechanga Indian Reservation in the Cleveland National Forest to the south and in Los Padres National Forest, where three firefighters have been injured, two with bee stings and one with heat exhaustion.

A man trying to spark the pilot light of his recreational vehicle's water heater with a burning piece of paper ignited the fire July 22 in Los Padres National Forest about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco, said Forest Service spokesman Maeton Freel. He said the man could face criminal charges.

The cause of the Sierra Nevada fire was still under investigation.

Farther east, a fire triggered by lightning on Wednesday had burned more than 62,000 acres about 60 miles northeast of Elko, Nev.

In Montana, a cluster of six fires that had burned 44,000 acres in Custer National Forest and three Forest Service buildings was threatening 20 homes Sunday.

''We've had some really extreme nighttime fire weather,'' fire information officer Jack Conner said. Night humidity in the forest, normally 80 to 90 percent, has been topping out at 35 percent, he said.

In Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, the famous Anasazi ruins survived a 10-day fire that blacked more than 23,000 acres and uncovered more than a dozen new archaeological sites.

The fire was contained Sunday, but damage to roads and utility lines are expected to keep the park closed at least two more weeks. The blaze was so hot, the railroad ties supporting the steel guardrails along the park's winding roads burned, and officials worried about erosion on the charred hills with the first heavy rain.

''We want people to know that we have sort of burned the skin of Mesa Verde, but the creature is still whole,'' park spokesman Will Morris said.


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