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Guard helps firefighters gain control of blazes

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Firefighters yesterday continued to battle wildfires throughout Virginia with the assistance of 125 National Guard soldiers, but most of the blazes were contained, a state official said yesterday.

"Weather conditions are much better than what we faced yesterday," said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The state's three largest blazes were still burning last night in Bedford, Roanoke and Dinwiddie counties, while a fire in Louisa County was brought under control, said John Campbell, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Forestry.

He said weather conditions will heavily factor into when the blazes can be contained.

Since Sunday, firefighters have fought more than 200 blazes — more than double the number they ever have had to battle.

Forty National Guard soldiers are set to deploy to Bedford County today, and 60 more are expected to arrive in Roanoke.

A state of emergency declared Sunday by Gov. Tim Kaine remains in effect. Mr. Spieldenner said he is not hopeful Virginia will receive assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Two injuries were reported in Prince William and Stafford counties, Mr. Spieldenner said. Statewide, two firefighters were injured and six homes were destroyed.

About 50,000 customers still lacked electricity as of 7 p.m. yesterday, down from 100,000 earlier in the day, he said.

Dominion Virginia Power said it expects to restore electricity to nearly all customers by today, utility spokesman David Botkins said.

In western Virginia, Appalachian Power customers could be without electricity until Thursday or Friday, and some local governments were opening warming shelters as temperatures were expected to drop below freezing, Mr. Spieldenner said.

National Guard air-support crews were summoned to drop buckets of water from a helicopter on a wildfire in Essex County. Soldiers were being stationed throughout the state to help more than 740 firefighters already deployed.

The Virginia Department of Forestry was training soldiers in basic firefighting, which would allow them to be deployed statewide.

Heavy wind — at times gusting to 75 mph — fueled fires Sunday that have burned nearly 6,000 acres thus far. Power line snaps were blamed in at least 18 fires, forestry officials said.

The number of charred acres was more than half of all those that burned in Virginia last year.

Wind and wildfires forced Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to cancel appearances in Roanoke. Roanoke County officials announced changes for several polling locations ahead of today's presidential primary election.

In Louisa, local firefighters were getting help from four Northern Virginia localities to combat flames near Bumpass and Mineral. County emergency manager Mike Schlemmer said the fires were contained, but he was concerned about the low humidity.

Roanoke County officials said brush fires had consumed more than 400 acres and the two largest blazes had joined yesterday morning to form one fire.

"They may have some fires still burning but mostly it's under control," Mr. Spieldenner said. "We're in much better shape than we were yesterday."

The winds diminished throughout yesterday, but windy conditions helped push wind chills below zero overnight in western Virginia.

Many Virginia homes had no power in Sunday night's bitter cold.

More than 80,000 Appalachian Power Co. customers in Virginia had lost power by Sunday evening, spokesman Todd Burns said.

Mr. Burns also said the continuing gusty winds would hamper restoration efforts in the worst-hit areas, and customers should prepare for a lengthy outage.

Dominion Virginia Power spokesman David Botkins said 215,000 customers had been affected by the high winds and outages. By yesterday afternoon, 9,586 were still without power.

Baltimore Gas & Electric had as many as 48,010 outages and reported 1,477 still lacking power yesterday afternoon. Potomac Electric Power Co. was down to 713 outages.