Hundreds flee Weaverville, CA wildfire

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at
Wed Aug 29 22:43:50 EST 2001

>From The Oregonian, Aug. 29, 2001, p A1

Hundreds flee wildfire
Residents of Weaverville, Calif., await word to return to their
fire-ravaged town

By CHELSEA J. CARTER, The Associated Press
	WEAVERVILLE, Calif. - Firefighters worked to slow a 1,900-acre
wildfire that ripped through several houses and forced the evacuation
of more than half of the town's residents who fled with few belongings
and anxiously waited to hear if their homes were still intact.
	Officials said nine structures were destroyed by the blaze and many
of the town's 3,550 residents were ordered to leave their homes
Tuesday night.
	But residents were to return to their homes sometime toay after
firefighters cut down some trees and reopened California 299.
	Trimming the trees would lessen the chance the blaze could spread
farther through town, according to California Department of Forestry
Deputy Chief Del Walters.
	"Our objective today is to keep the fire where it is," Walters said.
"We're expecting the same wind conditions again today."
	Those high winds fanned the fire toward the western side of this
former mining town about 200 miles north of San Francisco.
	The fire was 20 percent contained this morning, Walters said. The
fire has caused an estimated $3.5 million in damage, including $1.5
million in structural and personal belongings and $2 million in timber
	About 100 miles south, a man suspected of starting another fire in
Mendocino County was to be arraigned today.
	Frank Brady, 50, of Redwood Valley, Calif. was charged with two
counts of murder in the deaths of two pilots whose firefighting planes
collided Monday over a blaze that may have started at a suspected
illegal drug lab in the woods. A second man, Richard Mortensen, 43, of
San Pablo, Calif., was arrested on outstanding warrants for drug and
weapons charges. Prosecutor Norm Vroman said he also might be charged
in the deaths.
	Twenty-six large fives were burning on more than 200,000 acres across
the Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
	"I could see the flames up on the hill coming toward us, and it was
coming fast," said Dan Malloy a retired third-grade teacher who has
lived in Weaverville for 40 years. "I was trying to hose the roof
down, and (my wife) was trying to pack. Finally, I just said, 'Let's
get out of here.'"
	Malloy said he and his wife, June, managed to get some clothes, their
computer, a fishing boat and their vacation tickets to Australia out
of the house before they were told to leave.
	About 280 evacuees gathered at the Victorian Restaurant, which has
been set up as the evacuation center. In the parking lot, many
residents also slept in their cars with their pets and belongings.
	Many people at the shelter were unable to sleep for fear their homes
had burned.
	"A lot of people are emotional because they don't know what's going
on," Red Cross spokesman Deems Taylor said.
	Helen Robbins, 71, sat on a bench outside the shelter hugging her
knees to her chest at 2 a.m. Hours earlier, she had opened up her
front door to heavy smoke.
	"I started to cry I was so scared," she said.
	She and her dog, Duke, and cockatiel, Sammy, were in her car waiting
for an update and hoping conditions would not worsen today.
	"They say the winds are gonna come back," she said. "Do you think
that means the fire will come back?"
	Wind gusts estimated up to 30 mph drove the fire before dying down
Tuesday. The blaze also is burning in a heavily timbered area on the
north side of town.
	Trinity Hospital and the county jail also were voluntarily evacuated
earlier in the day as a precaution, forestry spokesman Jason Martin
	In Mendocino County, where the two pilots died, evidence of a
methamphetamine lab were discovered near the site where the fire
began, authorities said. Investigators spent Tuesday trying to link
the two men to the illegal activity that may have started the blaze.
	The planes collided Monday evening near Hopland, about 100 miles
north of San Francisco, while dumping fire retardant on the 250-acre
wildfire. Killed were retired Navy veteran Larry Groff, 55, and Lars
Stratte, 45.
	The pilots were flying alone in the Korean War-era Grumman S-2 planes
when they clipped each other during a pass over the fire.
	Among the eyewitnesses was Jim Wattenburger, who was in charge of
fighting the blaze. He said he was discussing the fire with a
colleague when he looked up and saw Stratte's crippled plane hurtling
right toward him.
	Wattenburger said he looked right into the pilot's eyes.
	"The closer he got to the ground, his mouth got wider and wider and
his eyes got bigger and bigger," he said.
	The cause of the collision was under investigation by the National
Transportation Safety board.
	The blaze has destroyed at least 12 structures and threatened more
than a dozen others. It was about 60 percent contained.
	The two pilots were employed by San Joaquin Helicopters of Delano,
Calif. The safety board lists six accidents since 1995 involving
aircraft operated by the company. of those, a 1998 crash resulted in
the death of an air tanker pilot.
	Jim Josephson, president of San Joaquin Helicopters, expressed his
condolences in a statement released Tuesday. The governor's office
also issued a release saying the flag at the state Capitol would be
lowered to honor the pilots.
	"They were highly trained, professional pilots who were dedicated to
the firefighting mission," Josephson said. Each pilot had years of
experience in aerial firefighting, he said.
	Also in Northern California, about 55 miles northeast of Georgetown,
the Star fire had burned more than 8,000 acres. The fire was 10
percent contained late Tuesday and was raging in steep canyons with
very rugged terrain. Three firefighters have been injured, and the
blaze is threatening the French meadows Recreation Area, a power line
and mine structures.
	In Southern California, authorities were investigating whether an
arsonist started an 1,800-acre brush fire that destroyed at least one
house in the hills north of Los Angeles and burned within a few feet
of several luxury homes.

Comment by Poster: It is unlikely the pilots knew the fire was caused
by illegal fires. I think that makes their job and loss all the more
tragic. Pause a moment in reflection for their sacrifice, please.

Daniel B. Wheeler

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