Some Return to Homes as Crews Fight Pesky Fires

Times Staff Writers

Evacuees from Auberry--including 153 elderly convalescent patients--were allowed to go home Sunday, while firefighters wrestled with the stubborn inferno that plagued surrounding Sierra foothill communities and massed to battle a growing blaze in steep terrain 25 miles away.

After scorching more than 11,000 acres of chaparral, oak and pine and consuming seven homes and 16 barns and garages, the “Powerhouse Road” conflagration east of here was 60% contained on its western and northern borders Sunday. Fire officials were unable to estimate when they could surround and completely control the fire. No other structures were immediately threatened.

The cost of fighting the fire, so far, was placed at $670,000.


But cautious officials, fearing new threats from the erratic fire, still refused to allow several hundred of the 2,500 people evacuated Friday night and Saturday to return to their homes in the communities of Alder Springs, Bald Mountain, Pine Ridge, Mile High, Jose Basin and Meadow Lakes.

A separate fire in the area of Balch Camp, about 25 miles southeast of the larger blaze, grew ferociously Sunday from 300 to 2,000 acres. And some estimates placed the acreage as high as 5,000.

“The fire burned with a lot of vigor today, a high rate of spread,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Larry Kaplinger said Sunday afternoon.

Officials said no structures were in danger in the steep, partly forested area.

The 2,000 firefighters facing both foothill fires got some help from the weather Sunday. Temperatures which had ranged from 95 to 100 degrees Friday and Saturday were in the mid-80s, winds moderated to less than 8 m.p.h., and the humidity went up to 33%, an improvement from Saturday’s 23%.

Kaplinger and others, however, feared that stronger winds, drier air and higher temperatures expected today might expand either blaze.

Investigators, still suspecting arson in the Powerhouse Road fire, posted notices of a $5,000 reward for anyone with information leading to an arrest. Officials believed the Balch Camp fire was probably set accidentally.

The fires were among hundreds--most of them ignited by lightning--that raged throughout the drought-stricken West during the weekend. Fires have burned more than 88,000 acres in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington since Wednesday.

Nearly half of that was in Idaho, including at least 10,000 acres in the Boise National Forest.

In Southern California, a fast-moving brush fire threatened several multimillion-dollar ranch homes Sunday evening in the Sand Canyon area of the Santa Clarita Valley.

The fire blackened more than 1,100 acres after flames broke out shortly after 2:30 p.m. at Placerita Canyon Road and Nadeu Mountain Way, Los Angeles County fire spokesman Corey Lovers said.

About 150 firefighters assisted by water-dropping helicopters and eight hand crews were battling the blaze, and fire officials said it would be contained by this morning.

At least 100 residents were told to evacuate the area, but most braved the thick smoke choking the secluded neighborhood to stay and protect their homes. Winds blowing at 10 to 15 m.p.h. out of the southwest were hampering matters, Lovers said.

To the south, a fire that has burned 4,100 acres near Vail Lake and the Agua Tivea Wilderness at the Riverside-San Diego county line was only 40% contained.

That fire was ignited about 11:30 a.m. Saturday by a recreational shooter firing at targets on rock formations, investigators concluded Sunday.

The 500 firefighters on the Vail Lake fire line Sunday worked to set backfires to curb the march of the flames. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Near the Central California coast, a 10,500-acre fire near Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County was fully contained Sunday and firefighters were being released to assist with other blazes in the state.

Believed caused by a spark from a motorcycle exhaust, that fire destroyed four homes, four travel trailers, four vehicles and one outbuilding. One firefighter suffered minor injuries when he slipped and fell.

In the Sierra foothills, the 135-member staff of the Wish-I-Ah Care Center convalescent home in Auberry happily prepared Sunday afternoon for the return of their 153 elderly patients, who had been evacuated Saturday to Clovis High School and then to Fresno hospitals.

Jan Harshman, owner and administrator, said the patients had gone through the ordeal “wonderfully well.”

Many of Auberry’s evacuees returned Sunday morning and went straight to church. Robert Bonner, minister of Auberry Church of Christ, made the fire the main topic of his sermon.

“In our lives, we get so wrapped up we lose track of priorities,” he said afterward.

Two members of the Auberry Volunteer Fire Department lay exhausted in a vehicle parked along a small road awaiting their next call. Rick Cheney said he normally works weekends, but had taken vacation time to fight the fire.

“When it is your community,” he said, “you just don’t care (about work).”

Stein reported from Fresno County; Oliver reported from Los Angeles.