Soldiers arrive to battle West's big blazes

RIDGECREST, Calif. - Thunderstorms dropping more lightning bolts than rain ignited new fires across the West Tuesday as the military began deploying soldiers to bolster firefighters battling infernos reducing forests, brush and grasslands to ash.

Thirty-five large fires were burning on more than 638,000 acres of parched wildlands in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Six hundred soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, arrived in Boise, Idaho, for training to fight a 15,000-acre blaze in west-central Idaho's Payette National Forest.

''I don't think anybody believes it will be enjoyable, but it's something to help the country,'' said Spc. Keith Weiss, his camouflage pants topped by a yellow fire shirt.

At Camp Pendleton, 500 Marines were receiving firefighting training to join crews on the lines of a blaze near the Idaho-Montana line by the end of the week. In all, some 20,000 firefighters were working fires in the Western states.

Weather prevailing over much of the West offered only prospects for lengthening the siege: high temperatures, wind and dry thunderstorms with lots of lightning.

''We're not getting any rain at all. If it's raining it's not hitting the ground,'' said Ed Waldapfel, information officer for the fire center in Idaho.

The threat from natural conditions was illustrated in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, where lightning caused more than 100 new small fires, the fire center said.

Conditions were expected to remain unchanged for the next three or four days and possibly more than a week, Waldapfel said.

''We're at the end of a La Nina weather event this year and everything is critically dry,'' he said. ''We've had virtually no moisture this spring and summer. ... It's just a very combustible situation.''

''There's no end in sight,'' said spokesman Ed Waldapfel at Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest. ''We're probably looking at another 30- to 60- day fire season. The long-range forecast is not good. Some of these larger fires won't be dead out until we get some major rain or even snow.''

Geography was the enemy of firefighters at California's largest blaze, a 67,000-acre inferno burning in Sequoia National Forest at altitudes around 6,000 feet in the southern Sierra Nevada. Constructing fire lines was a slow, literally uphill battle.

''A person can get on the hill and outcrawl us,'' said bulldozer operator Bob O'Keefe, describing the terrain with a near-vertical sweep of his hand.

Fire crews have gone days without sleep or showers since the blaze began July 22.

''It got to the point where the bugs didn't come near us,'' O'Keefe said.

The fire began July 22 and destroyed seven homes in the isolated community of Kennedy Meadows, a usually cool retreat for fishing and camping enthusiasts high above the deserts of southeastern California, about 35 miles northwest of Ridgecrest.

The intensity of the blaze as well as the determination of firefighters was evident at the end of a bumpy, four-mile drive into a canyon, where Roy Harmon's home survived amid blackened skeletons of pinon pines and charcoal shadows of sagebrush.

''When I got 100 yards into the canyon I thought, 'There's no way in hell anything can still be standing,''' said Harmon. But it was. Scorched earth revealed how the fire burned up to the front of the house before it was stopped.

Sam and Joyce Taggart's home also was left standing, but only a row of unscathed poplar trees relieved the view of a devastated landscape.

''Looking at it just knocks me out,'' Sam Taggart said.

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On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov/fireinfo/nfn.html

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