July 21, 2006

Lightning ignites yet another blaze

By Joe Nelson and Guy McCarthy, Staff Writers
Ontario Daily Bulletin

YUCCA VALLEY - Firefighters preparing to go home after battling a 61,000-plus-acre brush fire near Yucca Valley got back into action Thursday when a lightning strike ignited yet another blaze in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lightning struck about 1:30 p.m. in the Covington Flat area of the park. It crept up a hill, crested a ridge and shot down into a canyon, burning toward the southeast tip of Yucca Valley and threatening homes there.

As of 9:30 p.m., it had chewed through 282 acres and burned near the mouth of Black Rock Canyon. Officials ordered 400 breakfasts for hundreds of firefighters who were pulled from the Sawtooth Complex Fire and other blazes for deployment to Joshua Tree.

"This time we had the resources real fast from the Sawtooth (fire)," said Cindy Von Halle, a ranger for Joshua Tree National Park. "Right now we have about 200 firefighters and more are coming."

As night fell, the fire burned in an easterly direction farther into the 794,000-acre park. The blaze was 80 percent contained by 9:30 p.m., and officials expected to have it fully contained by 2 a.m. today.

Residents living on Carmelita Circle in Yucca Valley were advised they might need to evacuate their homes if the fire burned too close, but as of Thursday night, mandatory evacuations had not been ordered.

Pinion Juniper, Pinion Pines, scrub oak, Joshua Trees, Black Brush and a host of other native shrubs stand in the path of the blaze, said Joe Zarki, spokesman for Joshua Tree National Park.

Fires that burned in the park in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999 left behind a patchwork of burn areas that could thwart the progress of the fire, Zarki said.

"We'll have to wait and see. It depends on where the wind blows, what the terrain is like and how the air movements affect the fire," Zarki said.

If the fire burns into more vulnerable areas, it could prove disastrous.
"In the unburned zoned area there's quite a bit of fuel that can carry a fire," Zarki said.

Covington Flat Road, also known on some maps as Vermiculate Mine Road, was closed off Thursday to public access. The remainder of the park remained open.

The Covington fire came as a cluster of storm cells passed over the Morongo Basin and San Bernardino Mountains, producing thunder, rain and lightning. Several other brush fires flared up from Thursday afternoon, and a flash-flood warning remained in effect in the Morongo Basin.

The storm threat was expected to diminish overnight and should not pose the threat it did on Thursday, said Philip Gonsalves, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego.

"We're probably still going to get some showers and thunderstorms, but they're going to be more isolated," Gonsalves said.

On Thursday, however, the county went into high alert, sending pre-recorded telephone messages to residents living in flood-prone areas near Yucca Valley where the Sawtooth fire burned, incinerating vegetation that served as ground cover to trap rainwater and deter mudslides and debris flows.

Earlier in the day, about 200 firefighters were cutting a fire break against the 24,695-acre Heart-Millard Fire in the San Gorgonio Wilderness near Coon Creek when rain began falling and lightning ignited at least six small fires, said Rich Phelps, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

"When the storm cells came through this afternoon, we pulled our ground crews off," Phelps said, noting that the risk of flash floods was a concern for firefighters who hike through drainage areas.

Nine helicopters and six helitankers dropped water and retardant on the Heart-Millard blaze throughout the day, and about 14.9 miles of fire break still needed to be cut, Phelps said, adding that the fire is not an immediate threat to the Big Bear Valley and is still burning about eight miles southeast of the mountain resort communities.

The Millard Complex Fire north of Cabazon and the 800-acre Heart Fire, originally part of the 61,700-acre Sawtooth Complex Fire near Big Bear Valley, were combined Wednesday, a day after the Sawtooth blaze was declared 100 percent contained. The Heart-Millard Fire was declared 62 percent contained Thursday.

The Millard and Sawtooth fires were ignited by lighting strikes on July 9, and combined killed one man, destroyed more than 85,000 acres of desert terrain, 50 homes, 171 other structures and 191 cars and trucks.

The combination of fire and rain was a double-edged sword for firefighters and residents.

"It could help things as far as the fires go, but it could make debris flows even more dangerous because there's nothing holding the water back," said Dave Dowling, emergency communications manager for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. "There's no ground cover there now, so people need to stay clear of these washes."

Shortly after lightning ignited the fire in Joshua Tree, other lightning strikes were reported. The 100-acre Tuffnut Fire was burning atop a ridge on the west side of Providence Mountain in the Globe Mine area in the Mojave National Preserve.

In Irwin Lake near Lake Arrowhead, lightning struck and area near Highway 38 and State Lane at 1:42 p.m. and burned about one-eighth of an acre before it was contained at 2:02 p.m., a county fire dispatcher said.