Two dozen huge wildfires burned today across 150,000 acres of the West, with the largest blazes roaring through the bone-dry scrublands at the edge of the Mojave Desert.
Residents in Las Vegas, more than 200 miles away, reported seeing smoke drifting above their city from the Southern California fires.
Thousands of residents from five towns and settlements were ordered or asked to evacuate, and hundreds of campers, too, were chased out of the forests.
A few dozen structures, including some homes and trailers, have been destroyed in Southern California. Five people were arrested Monday for looting the homes of residents fleeing the flames and smoke. One firefighter lost his life over the weekend, perhaps from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
As of this morning, there were 23 large fires reported in six western states. About 11,000 firefighters--supported by 849 engines, 102 helicopters and eight military C-130 aircraft converted into air tankers--fought the fires. Most of the firefighters have now been shifted from Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Texas to work in Southern California.
Last week, the biggest blazes were in Northern California, where fires blackened 76,468 acres, with the largest burns centered in the Plumas, Shasta and Trinity national forests between Sacramento and Redding. So smoky were the blazes that downtown Sacramento was veiled in gray ashy fog last Thursday. These fires are now largely under control.
"Right now, Southern California is the priority for fire managers," said Janelle Smith, an information officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which tracks wild-land fires around the country, serving as a sort of brokerage for firefighters and their equipment.
"We got fairly normal activity in the rest of western states," she said. "So far, it's been a relatively normal fire season, but it has had these pockets of extreme activity."
This year, fires have burned across 4.2 million acres--twice as much landscape as the annual average. More than 2 million acres burned earlier this year in Nevada and Alaska, but those fires were little noticed by the national public.
The Southern California fires, on the other hand, are burning within the range of television news helicopters. And around these parts, where homes often abut federal and state wild lands, a raging wall of orange flame is big news.
Steve Chisholm was one of the unlucky ones. He stood in the shell of his burned-out rustic home, and there was nothing left to pick out of the rubble. "It's all we have," he told the Associated Press.
The largest fire in Southern California is burning on 44,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest, south of the city of Apple Valley and about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. In this area, the eastern slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains tumble down to the edge of the Mojave Desert. The fuel is cactus, scrub and Joshua trees. The fires can sweep across the open ground faster than any human being can run.
The so-called Willow Creek fire is believed by authorities to have been sparked by an illegal campfire on Saturday. Strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity have conspired to fan the flames.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, whose agency oversees the U.S. Forest Service, visited the command center for the Willow Creek fire on Monday and relayed his report back to the White House. California Gov. Gray Davis (D) has asked President Clinton to declare a state of emergency in a half dozen counties.
Last year's big fires were in Florida, which accounted for three of the top 10 blazes. The largest fire last year burned for weeks and blackened 111,000 acres in Florida--and the fires in the state were sensational because they were so close to urban and suburban areas.
The record-breaking year for wild-land fires was 1996, when the largest was the conflagration of 219,000 acres of grass and sage in Idaho.
Fighting these wild-land blazes isn't cheap. On average, the federal government spends about $412 million annually on such efforts. In 1996, it spent $721 million.
The federal land managers have been setting a growing number of "prescribed" fires, intentionally set and monitored, to burn away the underbrush and protect the larger trees from fire. The government has intentionally burned about 1.4 million acres this year.
The government land managers also allow some naturally ignited fires to burn, as they are now doing in Glacier National Park, to reduce hazardous fuels.
But the Southern California fires are being actively fought--or, at least, as best as they can be. Resources, according to federal firefighters, are stretched so thin that there is not a lot more personnel or firefighting equipment available.
CAPTION: An air tanker drops fire retardant chemicals on blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Green Valley Lake, Calif.