Lightning sparks more blazes across the West

MANTON, Calif. - August 20, 2012

In Northern California, crews struggled to gain control of a rapidly growing wildfire that has destroyed at least seven homes, threatened thousands of others and also forced thousands of rural residents to evacuate.

The Ponderosa Fire, which began Saturday, has consumed more than 23 square miles near three towns about 170 miles north of Sacramento. It was only about 5 percent contained.

It began after the area was hit by a series of lightning strikes, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

More than 1,200 firefighters fought the blaze in rugged, densely forested terrain as it threatened at least 3,500 homes and more than 300 other structures near the towns of Manton, Shingletown and Viola.

"These are the largest number of homes we've had threatened so far this year, so we're definitely concerned because this fire is so fast-moving," Berlant said. "The grass, brush and timber up here are so dry, and once the lightning with no rain struck, the flames began to spread quickly."

The fire forced the closure of Highway 44 and other roads and prompted the declaration of a state of emergency for Shasta County. The Red Cross set up an evacuation center in Redding.

"We have air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers and hand crews all available to us," Berlant said. "We're using every resource we have to put out this fire."

Evacuee Jerry Nottingham told reporters on Monday that, "All we can do is pray."

Another massive wildfire that has burned in Plumas National Forest since July 29 grew larger over the weekend as strong winds pushed the flames past fire lines on its northeast edge that crews had gained some control of late last week.

The blaze, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, has consumed more than 73 square miles and continued to threaten about 900 homes. The fire was 32 percent contained.

Elsewhere in California, a wildfire in Lassen Volcanic National Park was 51 percent contained after consuming more than 43 square miles. Officials expected firefighters would have the blaze contained by Tuesday.

In Mendocino County, a wildfire that started Saturday had consumed about 8 square miles near Covelo. That blaze, which was sparked by lightning, was burning in a remote area of thick timber and rugged terrain, making it difficult for fire crews to access.

The fires in California were among many blazes burning across the West, where wildfire season began much earlier than usual:

- In southwestern Colorado, firefighters were battling several new wildfires sparked by lightning over the weekend. The largest, the Burns Fire - about 12 miles southwest of Pagosa Springs - had grown to 120 acres by Monday. Three ground crews, two single engine air tankers and a heavy tanker are being used to fight the fire. No structures have been threatened.

- In Utah, officials said Monday that a wildfire that has burned 272 acres was likely started by target shooters in Wasatch County - just a short distance from another human-caused blaze that was fully contained after threatening residences near the Jordanelle Reservoir.

The Whiskey Fire remained uncontained and has burned conifer and oak brush near Daniels Canyon, southeast of Heber, said Jason Curry, a state forestry and fire spokesman. The blaze was not threatening any structures. About 150 firefighters and two helicopters were battling the fire, a task made difficult because there are few access roads into the area.

- In Washington state, firefighters hoped to fully contain a wildfire that has burned dozens of homes in Cle Elum, about 75 miles east of Seattle. Crews expected the weather to cooperate for the most part with firefighting efforts. The fire broke out a week ago at a bridge construction project and has burned nearly 36 square miles of grass, sagebrush and timber in rural areas.

- In Idaho, fire managers planned to meet with residents in Pine after an evacuation of Featherville was ordered over the weekend due to smoke from an approaching wildfire.

About 1,100 firefighters battled the Trinity Ridge Fire, which has burned 140 square miles and was threatening hundreds of homes. Thunderstorms were expected and could cause gusty, shifting winds around the fire. A little to the north, Idaho's largest wildfire had burned 143 square miles,


Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco, Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City, Donna Blankinship in Seattle and Jesse Bonner in Boise, Idaho contributed to this report.

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