June 26, 2005

Large blaze in Mojave National Preserve destroys 67,000 acres

San Francisco Chronicle - San Francisco, CA

Kelso, Calif. (AP) -- Mild winds and steep terrain have helped slow a 67,000-acre wildfire in a southeastern California wilderness preserve that destroyed five homes and two cabins built in the late 1800s, officials said Sunday.

Firefighters had surrounded most of the blaze, which was 65 percent contained in the Mojave National Preserve. They made good progress after a cold front moved in with winds that were not as strong as expected, said Capt. Greg Cleveland, a spokesman with the Southern California Incident Management Team.

"The weather today helped out a lot," Cleveland said. "It was still hot but the winds were mild. And the humidity was still low but it wasn't down in the single digits."

Officials expected the fire to be 100 percent contained by 6 p.m. Monday.

The large fire formed after lightning sparked five separate blazes Wednesday afternoon near the Nevada state line. Those eventually merged and were burning at the edges of critical territory for the threatened desert tortoise. A federal biologist walked the burned area Saturday to determine how the fire had affected the animals, but did not find any live or dead tortoises, officials said.

More than 900 firefighters working in rocky terrain were battling the blaze in an area north of Interstate 40 and south of Interstate 15. It was fueled by grass, sagebrush, juniper and pinyon pine stands made unusually dense by heavy winter rains. Six trailers or other structures also were destroyed.

The fire scorched sections of the preserve containing historic mines and sites of ancient Indian pictographs, but the extent of the damage to such places was unknown.

"It definitely burned into a lot of those areas," Cleveland said.

Evacuations were maintained Sunday in the Round Valley and Fourth of July Canyon areas, where about a dozen people had residences, officials said.