Updated: 07-15-2004 11:02:03 AM

Nevada Wildfire Burns Homes; Four Firefighters Injured, Engine Destroyed


BRENDAN RILEY
Associated Press

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) -- Four firefighters and a reporter were injured, 16 structures were destroyed and about 550 other homes and businesses were threatened Wednesday by a wildfire burning on the west edge of the capital.

Gusty winds pushed the out-of-control fire to more than 2,000 acres in an area of upscale homes. At one point the fire, which stretched for about four miles along Carson City's western edge, was within half a mile of the governor's mansion.

``It's not very far from us here,'' Gov. Kenny Guinn said. ``The trees are just exploding.''

One firefighter broke a leg, another suffered back and neck injuries and two others suffered burns, said Christie Kalkowski, spokeswoman for the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden.

One of the burned firefighters was with a crew trapped briefly when the rapidly moving blaze leapfrogged their position and destroyed their fire engine.

KOLO-TV, Reno, reporter John Tyson suffered minor burns on his hands and face. His vehicle was destroyed, along with an ambulance, as the fire spread in all directions through dry brush, grass and timber.

``It's absolute devastation up there,'' Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong said after driving through a burned-over area where the Waterfall Fire started, near a waterfall on a creek that's popular with local youths.

Furlong said he counted six houses ``burned _ and I mean burned down to their foundations'' and another home that was damaged in the area. The homes had a combined value of several million dollars.

In all, the Sierra Front said the fire destroyed or seriously damaged 16 structures, including nine homes, two businesses and five outbuildings.

Sierra Front spokesman Scott Huntley said that as the fire spread south from the Waterfall area it forced a temporary closure of U.S. 395 - Carson's main street - and also badly damaged an auto body shop just one block from the highway.

In some areas firefighters had to pull away from homes because of the intensity of the fire, which was fanned by wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour, he said.

About 900 firefighters were trying to control the fire. They were assisted by seven air tankers and 10 helicopters that dropped about 160,000 gallons of retardant; plus several dozen trucks, tractors and other heavy equipment rushed to the scene.

The fire began about 3 a.m. and was human-caused, Huntley said. Authorities were looking for a 1978 Dodge truck with Nevada plates 250NYZ.

``It's just unreal,'' said Judy Staub, who lost her home of 22 years. ``It was burned down and everything was gone but an old antique wagon.''

``People say 'Judy, you have your children and your husband and your dog' and I say I know that. But so many memories are gone,'' she added. ``I never dreamed I'd experience something like this.''

Carson City Fire Chief Dan Shirley said the fire, which created a huge plume of smoke over the city, burned both up and down the hill and became increasingly unpredictable in the afternoon.

``It's a monster (smoke) column. It's very scary looking,'' Kalkowski said.

An evacuation center was set up at a local high school. The campus of Western Nevada Community College was evacuated, though firefighters managed to stake out a protective line around it.

Other significant wildfires were burning in California and Alaska.

In California firefighters working in triple-digit heat slowly gained ground against wildfires that have burned more 18,500 acres of brush and forest and caused hundreds of people to evacuate homes this week.

Changing weather offered some potential for relief as monsoonal flow from the southeast began bringing moisture and thunderstorms to the region, but there was also potential for fire-starting lightning and flash-flooding in old burn areas from last fall's devastating California wildfires.

One of the most difficult fires, 4,700 acres in Pine Canyon west of Lake Hughes in Angeles National Forest on the edge of the Mojave Desert, was 46 percent contained. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations emptied more than 500 homes Tuesday, and an outbuilding and motorhome were destroyed.

In Riverside County, a 3,698-acre blaze on the edge of San Bernardino National Forest was 50 percent contained as it burned toward unpopulated terrain. It previously posed a threat to the mountain communities of Idyllwild, Pine Cove and Garner Valley.

In the Sierra, hikers were evacuated and trails were closed in part of Yosemite National Park after a lightning-sparked wildfire grew to 1,300 acres Tuesday. The Meadow fire was one of nine fires burning in the park from lightning strikes two weeks ago, the National Park Service said.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, where wildfires are burning on nearly 2.5 million acres, firefighters were building a firebreak about a quarter mile from the town of Eagle, population 126. If the wildfire gets too close to the line, firefighters will light their torches and burn the land between the firebreak and the wildfire.

Bert Plante of the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center said firefighters in Alaska are encountering extreme fire behavior, including 30-foot trees ablaze with 100-foot flames.

``About the only way you can fight that kind of fire is with more fire,'' Plante said. ``Eagle is ready to do it.''

The fire is part of the Eagle complex of fires, which has burned about 475,000 acres in northeastern Alaska.

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