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Fire Consumes Hundreds of Acres in East County

Times Staff Writer

A flash fire started by the spontaneous combustion of horse manure in near 100-degree temperatures scorched more than 550 acres of brushland and cut phone service to 2,000 East County customers Wednesday afternoon but stayed clear of homes and trailer parks near the rural community of Canyon City, authorities said.

More than 340 firefighters from the California Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service and several rural departments battled the blaze, which was fanned by erratic winds as it roared along several hillsides near California 94, about 50 miles east of downtown San Diego.

“The winds keep changing on us,” said Brian Nunez, a CDF firefighter, as he took a break from his job to dip his head in a pool of water being used to fight the fire.

“You usually like to fight fires in a straight line so you can start backfires to take the wind out of them,” Nunez said. “But the winds played tricks on us. First, they came from the south, and then blew the fire around our backs. It was real intense.”

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Telephone lines were down between Potrero and Campo, and several San Diego Gas & Electric crews stood nearby to ensure that the fire stayed clear of a 500,000-volt power line running along the south side of California 94.

The fire, which started about noon, was a rekindling of an Independence Day blaze that started after fireworks ignited outside a bar in Canyon City, better known to local residents as Dogpatch, according to CDF Division Chief Tom Kelly.

“The July 4 fire was pretty small--it only burned a couple of acres and a nearby barn,” he said. “Firefighters sprayed it down with water. The next day, however, because of the heat, the water, horse manure and straw near the barn created a spontaneous combustion.”

Authorities closed a 6-mile stretch of California 94 east of Campo, but that failed to keep residents from walking out to the road to watch the flames, which sent up black clouds of smoke to soil an otherwise cloudless summer sky.

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Although the blaze did not burn them out of their homes, it kept many residents from reporting to work on time. “I’m a bartender in Campo, and I don’t know how I’m going to get there, unless some sheriff’s deputy gives me a ride,” said Mary Lou Harbough, as she sat on the front porch of a bar in Dogpatch, sipping from a can of beer.

And so, for most of the afternoon, just like her neighbors, Harbough watched dozens of fire trucks race along the rural road and looked up to see the helicopter and five airplanes that had been brought in to help subdue the blaze with water and orange flame retardant.

CDF spokeswoman Cele Cundari said Wednesday night that several houses were threatened but had so far escaped damage.

Firefighters, who had contained only 30% of the fire by Wednesday evening because of the erratic winds and steep, rugged terrain, said their strategy was to drive the fire farther north of California 78, away from people and property.

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“Right now, we’re more concerned with saving structures than containing it,” Cundari explained.


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