- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

KERNVILLE, Calif. (AP) Hundreds of firefighters struggled in erratic wind and rugged terrain yesterday to save centuries-old giant sequoias from an out-of-control forest fire.

The wildfire blackened more than 50,000 acres, half of that inside Giant Sequoia National Monument, in a region that has had little or no rain since spring.

A 45-year-old woman was taken into custody yesterday at her Bakersfield home on suspicion of causing the blaze, U.S. Forest Service Officer Brian Adams said.

He said authorities tracked her down from witness descriptions.

Flames got to within two miles of a grove of sequoias called the Trail of 100 Giants, and within a mile of the Packsaddle Grove, which contains a tree with the fourth-largest circumference of any sequoia.

Firefighters and forestry officials worried that the wind might push the blaze even closer to those and other stands of the mighty redwoods.

The monument's deep canyons and mountain ridges contribute to erratic winds.

"It's burning in every direction," forester Lewis Jump said. "It's the worst in the afternoon. The hot canyon winds are coming up and creating quite a bit of turbulence. That's what's pushing the fire."

More than 1,000 firefighters and 12 air tankers battled the blaze. The Forest Service called in six of the nation's elite Hot Shot firefighting crews to help protect the trees. The trees in the Trail of 100 Giants are up to 1,500 years old and 220 feet tall, with trunks up to 20 feet across.

The fire began Sunday in the area of Johnsondale, a hamlet about 130 miles north of Los Angeles.

Mr. Adams said the woman arrested yesterday went into a store Sunday and said she needed help because she had been cooking hot dogs and her camp fire had blown out of control. The woman had been camping by a lodge, and minutes after she made her declaration and left, the lodge burned, he said.

"She ran in the store and said, 'Help, I started a fire,'" Mr. Adams said. The woman was charged with unlawfully causing a fire, a felony.

Fire permits have been required in the area because of the extremely dry conditions. Ranger Judy Schutza said the woman did not have one.

"We understand that she's being cooperative and they are looking at the case being accidental rather than arson," said Jim Paxon, spokesman for a national team of elite firefighters called in to manage the blaze.

More than 1,000 residents, campers and other vacationers fled the area. At least 10 structures burned and 200 homes were threatened.

Elsewhere in the West:

• An 1,800-acre fire in California's Kern County was fully contained yesterday after burning about 40 structures near Lake Isabella. Youths playing with matches are believed to have started it.

•Lightning during the night in Oregon started new fires in the Cascade Range and the high desert, forcing the evacuation of a church camp outside the town of Sisters.

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