Cherokee Hot Shots, thousands more battle wildland fires

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   The Cherokee Hot Shots, a highly specialized team of firefighters from Cherokee National Forest, have joined nearly 17,600 firefighters battling 18 wildland fires in the western portion of the United States.
   As of Sunday, 183 new fires were reported, including two fires over 500 acres each in California and Wyoming, with very high to extreme fire danger reported in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Only one fire was contained, meaning a non-burnable trail was constructed around the entire perimeter of the fire.
   "Out West it's not doing really well. We're still in for a long haul, nationally. We're estimating that the price tag could go up close to $1.5 billion," District Ranger Candace W. Allen of the Watauga Ranger District, Cherokee National Forest, said Wednesday.
   "Cherokee National Forest has offered up a little over $1 million of our budget to help pay for the national fire hazards, and we constantly have resources rolling in and out. We go on 14-day assignments, with a couple days' travel. We always have somebody either going or coming."
   The Hot Shots have received assignments in Colorado. "Their vehicles were shipped out last week," Allen said. The Hot Shots "are being put to good use and are getting a lot of good training. There have been as many as 75 or 80 firefighters at a time dispatched to the western half of the United States. That's a significant portion of the population of the Cherokee National Forest firefighters," she said. Sixty-eight Cherokee firefighters are currently out West.
   Allen recently visited the largest forest fire, located 26 miles southwest of Grants Pass, Ore. The flames have "slopped over" to California, she said. "They figure it's getting close to half the size the state of Rhode Island."
   The fire is in Siskiyou National Forest, where 494,814 acres are 70 percent contained. Another 63,100 acres are 65 percent contained in the Umpqua National Forest, where flames are now threatening 67 homes in an area 25 miles east of Canyonville.
   "There was one fire just south of the largest fire that was near where the redwoods grow, but I think they were pretty successful in wrapping that one up and getting it contained before it did any serious damage. But they were concerned," Allen said.
   The fire situation is ranked at Level 5, meaning that wildfire activity is increasing, firefighting resources are becoming scarce, and unfavorable weather conditions are expected over the next few days. The National Preparedness Level changes as the threat of wildland fire changes.
   Across the nation, four fires are burning out of control in Colorado, where 59,924 acres have been scorched. At the Mt. Zirkel Complex in Routt National Forest, 35,554 acres are 20 percent contained. Crews are improving a fireline on the west flank in preparation for a burn out operation. The Mt. Zirkel Complex is 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs.
   In California, two fires are burning -- one new. The fires have claimed 151,220 acres. The latest fire is in Cleveland National Forest, where 800 acres are 50 percent contained. The fire is threatening the town of Lake Morena and Corral Canyon Marine Corps Base.
   In Sequoia National Forest, 150,420 acres are 89 percent contained. The fire, which is nine miles north of Kernville, Calif., is threatening 23 residences and seven commercial properties.
   In Oregon, four fires have burned 568,694 acres, including 2,680 acres in the Bureau of Land Management's Lakeview District Wilderness Study Area.