June 25, 2005

Hackberry Complex Fire racing towards Nevada

By Nikki Cobb, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

KELSO - The 65,200-acre fire sweeping across the Mojave National Preserve was racing toward Nevada Saturday night as fire officials worried that a change in the weather could bring winds gusting up to 45 mph.

More than 930 firefighters battling the Hackberry Complex Fire were hindered by 90-degree temperatures, 8-percent humidity, steep, rocky terrain and strong breezes as they struggled to beat back the fire Saturday, which by nightfall was 65 percent contained.

"This is definitely the biggest fire ever in the east Mojave,' said Park Ranger Linda Slater.

A thunderstorm that swept across the preserve on Wednesday afternoon had started five fires with multiple lightning strikes, Park Ranger Ruby Newton said.

At first, the fires were isolated. The Hackberry, the Wild Horse, the Ranch, the Brandt and the Narrows fires all burned separately.

The Hackberry fire was fully contained Saturday evening, and crews were mopping up. The Brandt, another isolated blaze, was mostly contained too, Newton said.

"There's not much fire burning at that place now,' she said.

But the Ranch, the Wild Horse and the Narrows fires have merged, and were burning steadily Saturday evening in a blaze called the Hackberry Complex.

Fire officials fear that a cold front, expected to blow through Saturday night, will change the wind's direction from north-northeast to southwest.

"The front could bring us winds that gust up to 45 miles per hour,' said Capt. Chris Hoover of the Kern County Fire Department. "We've had some pretty good breezes, particularly on the north side. But we haven't had to deal with those kinds of winds yet.'

Meanwhile, the Paradise Fire was 100 percent contained Saturday after having charred 3,022 acres near Yucca Valley.

In the Mojave National Preserve, the blazes have burned five houses, six trailers and several outbuildings, Hoover said. There were 30 to 40 homes threatened as well.

About a dozen people were evacuated from their homes in Round Valley, Fourth of July Canyon and Cedar Canyon. Mid Hills Campground was damaged in the fire as well, Slater said.

The fire is not expected to reach Interstate 15.

The Mojave National Preserve contains ecological treasures, and firefighters were mindful particularly of habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, Hoover said.

Fortunately for the tortoise, the fire is mostly burning at higher elevations than the hole-dwelling creatures live. Still, efforts are being made to minimize damage.

"We're trying to use water as much as we can, to avoid staining things with flame retardant,' he said. "We're trying to make as little impact as we can.'

Firefighters are also battling to save cultural sites, such as ranches and mining cabins built in the 1860s.

"There are mine shafts around there that pose another hazard for the firefighters,' Slater said. "It would be easy for them to fall in and get hurt.

"We don't want to lose anybody.'

The fire is burning pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush, Slater said.

She said that though winter rains had brought spectacular displays of flowers this spring, they had also fed grasses that carpeted the desert. Those grasses have dried and are fueling the fire.

"When we don't have a lot of rain there's nothing to burn, so a fire jumps from one shrub to the next,' she said. "Now it's just sweeping across.'

By nightfall, though, fire officials were encouraged. Cooler temperatures had helped firefighters considerably. "We're making some progress,' Slater said. "We're real hopeful."