Calmer winds help slow growth of Sierra blaze |

Calmer winds help slow growth of Sierra blaze

TOM GARDNER, Associated Press Writer

WALKER, Calif. — Nearly 400 Walker residents are back in their homes after spending three days in shelters, hotel rooms and camps.

The American Red Cross shut down the shelter at Coleville School on Wednesday after residents were allowed to return home late Tuesday night.

Erratic winds that have kept fire crews from mounting an offensive against a massive Sierra wildfire eased Wednesday, giving firefighters better odds against the flames.

Officials estimated firefighting costs at $1.8 million by Wednesday night.

“It looks like it’s definitely starting to slow down,” fire spokesman Keith Whaley said. “We’re hitting the east side with air tankers and helicopters, trying to put it out.”

The blaze, which began Saturday and grew to 21,760 acres, continued to grow on its southern flank, but slowed on the east.

The southern flank was being attacked by 1,409 firefighters, with more on the way, Smith said. The fire was 15 percent contained, and Whaley said fire bosses hoped to have the fire surrounded by June 28.

Two P-3 air tankers were fighting the flames after Monday’s deadly crash of a C-130A tanker grounded those planes. The P-3s were assisted by six helicopters.

Many of the evacuees returned to homes that were saved by fire crews who stopped the flames at the foundations. Blackened skeletons of sagebrush and singed pine trees surrounded the houses and mobile homes.

Officials scheduled a community meeting for residents at 8 p.m. tonight at Coleville High School.

Whaley said fire engines were continuing to patrol neighborhoods for flaring hot spots or embers from burning hillsides.

“It’s another kind of insurance,” Whaley said.

Marine Corps investigators were trying to determine whether practice campfires being set by Marine mountain warfare trainees started the fire.

Some 35 trainees were undergoing survival education in a remote section of the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest where the wildfire erupted.

“Until that investigation is complete, we’ll have no idea,” Lt. Tara Burkhart said. “An investigation like this takes anywhere from 20 days or longer.”

At the north end of Walker, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies were probing the rubble of the C-130A, looking for why it might have broken up Monday during a routine drop of fire retardant.

“At the start of the drop everything appeared normal. Shortly after the start of the drop … we had a wing failure followed by a second wing failure nearly simultaneously,” George Petterson, air safety investigator for the transportation safety board, said Tuesday.

He said he thought it was the first time a C-130A had lost both wings.

The victims were pilot Steven Wass, 42, of Gardnerville; co-pilot Craig Labare, 36, of Loomis, Calif., and crew member Michael Davis, 59, of Bakersfield, Calif.

The plane’s wingless fuselage slammed nose-first into a clearing just east of U.S. 395, leaving a flat sprawl of retardant-covered wreckage. Only the tail was recognizable

The highway was still closed through Walker on Wednesday night, according to the California Department of Transportation.

Petterson said the retardant would slow the investigation, but he hoped to have preliminary findings by next week with a final report in about one year. ——

On the Net:

National Fire Center:

Sierra Fire Center:

National Transportation Safety Board:

Cannon Fire Web site: