June 8, 2008

356 acres burn; investigators probe cause of Acoma Fire

By Dave Miller and Stacy Moore
Hi-Desert Star

YUCCA VALLEY — An elderly citizen was treated for smoke inhalation, just one structure — a shed — was destroyed and 356 acres have burned in the Acoma Fire that broke out here around 1:30 p.m. Saturday, county Battalion Chief Kat Opliger reported late Sunday morning.

The fire began on federal Bureau of Land Management property in the rugged, brush-covered terrain near Golden Bee Drive and Acoma Trail, said Opliger.

The flames were caused by humans, she confirmed, adding, “Whether it was accidental or intentional has yet to be determined.”

“The sheriff’s department arson/bomb division, a San Bernardino County fire investigator and a BLM California Desert District fire investigator as we speak are combing the point of origin for evidence of how the fire started,” Opliger said.

By late Sunday morning, the fire was 100 percent contained and was expected to be completely controlled within a few days.

Speaking from the makeshift command center on Acoma Avenue, Opliger said 128 burned acres were on Bureau of Land Management property and 228 acres were on locally owned land.

The Bureau of Land Management, represented by Tim Dunfee, and San Bernardino County Fire Department, represented by Opliger, had formed a unified command in charge of the fire.

Saturday, according to Opliger, facing the fire were 350 men and women on the ground and 16 aircraft in the air, with crews from Cal Fire (the state firefighting department), the BLM, the National Park Service, Forestry Service and Twentynine Palms Marine base along with personnel and equipment from communities including Redlands, Loma Linda, Palm Springs, San Bernardino City and Chino. “All fire agencies in the local area were involved,” said Opliger.

Their challenges were the light, flashy fuel that predominates the terrain, strong, shifting winds, critical resource needs and the hot, dry conditions.

“Our critical resource needs ended up being water tenders that were small enough to travel over the dirt roads and rough terrain out here,” said Opliger. “We were able to get what we needed.”

Overnight, assigned crews dropped down to about 100 firefighters. On Sunday, about 140 remained working on the lines while one helicopter flew overhead.

At the western end of Kismet Drive where it ends in hilly, dirt-road country, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tom Foley reported a strike team of engines and two more teams of hand crews were working to ensure the fire stayed under control. “We’re trying to improve the line of containment and mop up the Joshua trees and other vegetation that’s still on fire and threatening us,” Foley said.

Unfortunately, Opliger reported, conditions with wind, low humidity and high temperatures continued Sunday, “which will hamper our efforts.”

The Morongo Basin chapter of the Red Cross has been supporting fire crews since Saturday with food, water and Gatorade. Chapter Executive Director Candace Fritz said an emergency shelter was set up in the Yucca Valley Community Center as a precaution, but wasn’t used.

The only mandatory evacuation was called as a precaution at the Desert Manor board and care facility, a skilled nursing facility on Cholla Avenue that is home to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Firefighters mitigated the threat to the facility and the evacuation called off, Opliger said.