- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

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

"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 acres overnight Saturday and threatening homes along the fire line, about 120 miles north of Los Angeles yesterday.

Firefighters estimate 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, Mr. Adams said, adding, "That wind won't help us either."

The Sierra Nevada blaze was one of about 50 fires burning more than 488,000 acres across the nation yesterday, the National Fire Information Center reported. In the West, wildfires continued to burn in Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico.

In the scattered California community of Kennedy Meadows, which includes the tiny Pine Creek village that burned, residents were moving horses and mobile home trailers to safety yesterday.

Ignoring an evacuation order, some of the popular tourist area's 43 residents 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," Miss Hansen said.

About 1,350 firefighters, with the help of nine helicopters and four air tankers, were fighting the blaze, which has cost more than $3 million, Mr. Adams said. Eight firefighters have been injured since it 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," he 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.

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

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

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

"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 yesterday, but damage to roads and utility lines is 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 when the first heavy rain comes.

"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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