Firefighters Brace for 4th, See 'Potential for Disaster'

Times Staff Writer

Already reeling from a massive chemical fire and evacuation, four brush fires and a rash of assistance calls on blazes throughout Southern California, Orange County firefighters braced Wednesday for a treacherous, tinder-dry Fourth of July--a day that one top fire official said "has the real potential for disaster."

"We're praying a lot," said Fullerton Fire Chief Ron Coleman as the searing summer heat again topped 100 degrees and showed no signs of easing for what is typically the busiest day of the year for firefighters.

With many already worn down from a pesticide warehouse fire in Anaheim less than two weeks ago that resulted in the evacuation of 7,500 residents, county firefighters were called to several major fires throughout Southern California during the early part of this week and were still battling two large brush fires along the county's eastern borders through Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Orange County firefighters and more than 40 engines were helping combat 14 fires in four counties. By Wednesday afternoon, some Orange County Fire Department crews had been on duty around the clock for three days, said County Fire Chief Larry Holms.

'Tired Firefighters'

"Overall conditions, other than that we have some of our resources back from outside the county now, are not that good," Holms said. "The problem is we have a lot of really tired firefighters, and we are entering what traditionally is one of our highest activity periods. The 3rd and 4th of July are always a critical time, and this has the real potential for disaster."

In Huntington Beach, which had two units battling a blaze in Escondido on Wednesday, Fire Chief Ray Picard issued a statement warning residents to keep ladders, garden hoses and fire extinguishers on hand and be prepared to fight their own fires until fire trucks arrive.

"What's making the situation so critical at this point is that we've had hot, dry weather, and the amount of fuel moisture in the wood-shingle roofs is down to very low levels, so the ignition potential is very great," Picard said. "People should be watching and protecting their own roofs, and they should be prepared to attack a fire, particularly in its early stages, because the resources of the Fire Department are stretched very thin right now."

Meanwhile, two brush fires along the Orange-Riverside County border that were kindled Tuesday afternoon continued to burn Wednesday, although firefighters contained one of the blazes by 6 p.m. and expected the second to be brought under control during the night.

Victims Identified

In the Santa Ana Canyon area, midway between Yorba Linda and Corona, more than 750 acres were blackened by a fire touched off when a banner-towing plane crashed into a tractor-trailer rig on the Riverside Freeway, killing both the pilot and the co-pilot. The plane's occupants were identified Wednesday as James Eldred Atkins, 31, of Covina, and Richard Alan Gonsalves, 38, of Burbank.

Though firefighters had initially hoped to have the blaze contained by Wednesday morning, a combination of searing heat, shifting winds and rugged terrain prevented them from gaining the upper hand, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Bill Pidanick.

"The progress we were going to make Tuesday night didn't materialize for a couple of reasons, primarily fatigue," Pidanick said. "The crews are just burned out from the initial attack and that super hot weather."

By late afternoon, more than 195 firefighters from the California Department of Forestry, the Forest Service, the Naval Weapons Center at Corona and the Orange and Riverside fire departments had halted the spread of flames over 40% of the burn area and had about 20% of the blaze under control. Full containment was expected shortly before midnight.

Three Injured

On Tuesday, the fire engulfed several electronics towers and a Naval Weapons Station fire truck, leaving three firefighters with minor injuries. On Wednesday, however, it was burning in steep, unpopulated canyons where no structures were threatened.

"It was so hot . . . the area ahead of the fire preheated and ignited just like that," said Orange County firefighter Hugh Johnson, a member of a strike team that battled the blaze through the late evening hours Tuesday. "People were losing their stomachs from the heat. . . . It was taking a lot of people out," he said.

A second brush fire three miles east of the Orange-Riverside county line along Ortega Highway was controlled Wednesday evening after blackening 60 acres and temporarily threatening the Ortega Oaks campground and candy store the day before, fire officials said.

"It was just a mess," said campground owner Paul Moss, who hosed down the store and grounds while waiting for fire trucks to arrive. At one point, the 40-foot-high flames marched to within 60 feet of the candy store, and then skirted it, Moss said.

"It scares me. One guy said a prayer, and he said that was it. Not being into that, I don't know. It was weird, but all of a sudden, it just zapped by."

Pool Water Used

Firefighters arrived with about 500 gallons of water and eventually began pumping out of Moss' swimming pool and well to hold the fire at bay, he said.

Meanwhile, renters at the 60-space campground quickly pulled up stakes and got out. "It looked like the gold rush or something," Moss said ruefully. "I mean, they hooked up their trailers and they were gone. By 7 o'clock, it looked like a ghost town up here."

Meanwhile, Moss was expecting a full contingent of Independence Day campers by Wednesday evening, even though the fire line was still barely 500 yards from the campground throughout most of the day.

"We've had two or three cancellations from people who have heard about it, but I think most everybody is going to show up," he said. "It's 105 (degrees) up here. If I can't get that swimming pool back, what am I going to do?"

Still, both fires--along with two smaller brush fires in Orange County on Tuesday and blazes in surrounding counties--were taking their toll on Orange County firefighters.

Long Duty Stint

County Fire Department Capt. Bud Bellifante had been on duty for 48 straight hours by Wednesday morning and was not scheduled to be relieved until sometime this morning--unless even that break was canceled by a call to an extended fire.

On Monday, he handled the last of four "routine" alarms at 11 p.m. Then at 4 a.m. Tuesday, Bellifante was ordered to form a 15-member strike team to assist firefighters in Ojai. The team was about halfway there, he said, when they got the call to stop, regroup in Yorba Linda, and head down to Fallbrook in San Diego County to help protect threatened homes.

The team was cleared to return to Orange County at midnight, but darted out early Wednesday morning for yet another fire and moved down to Mission Viejo later in the day. By Wednesday, Bellifante was at station headquarters with his feet up. "That's what the order was: 'Kick back, put your feet up, because you're probably going to need them later on,' " he said.

County Fire Chief Holms said he has placed strike teams at strategic locations throughout the county in the hope of having manpower and equipment readily available at those areas most prone to fire. Volunteers and off-duty firefighters have been called in to help man the stations, located at Yorba Linda, Orange and Laguna Hills.

Chiefs Get Ready

City fire chiefs throughout the county were making similar preparations for the long Independence Day weekend.

Costa Mesa, with one crew just returned from San Diego County and a second engine unit near Santa Barbara, has called in off-duty firefighters to help staff the stations.

Brea has taken similar measures. "Firefighting resources are very scarce at this time. We're stretched very thin. And if we have anything go down of any magnitude in our jurisdiction, assistance will not be as readily available as it is on a normal basis," said David Huffman, administrative chief for the Fire Department.

Accordingly, city officials have asked residents in Carbon Canyon to voluntarily discontinue the use of all fireworks, even the legal "safe and sane" variety.

Special Patrols

Both Anaheim and Santa Ana, among other cities, have scheduled special fireworks patrols to help control illegal fireworks. Tuesday night, the patrols in Anaheim responded to 22 complaints and made two arrests, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Gail McCloud.

Fire officials are hoping that the fact that Independence Day falls on a weekday will help dampen some of the fireworks enthusiasm, McCloud said.

"And we're really hoping the common sense of the American public, along with these disastrous fires we've had in the last few days, is going to tone people down a little bit," he said. "What have we had around Southern California, two deaths, 150 structures? That will be kind of a sobering thought to people."

Times staff writer Shirish Date contributed to this story.

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