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In Lull, 'Hot Shot' Crews Target Smaller Fires

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In Lull, 'Hot Shot' Crews Target Smaller Fires


In Lull, 'Hot Shot' Crews Target Smaller Fires

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The FBI and California authorities are looking into whether people set some of California's wildfires. At least one person has been arrested in San Bernardino County on suspicion of arson.


The wildfires triggered the largest mass evacuation in California history with at least half a million people ordered to leave their homes since last weekend. Nearly 20,000 of them fled to San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. But in an indication that the worst maybe over, the county's office of emergency services says more than half of those evacuees have left. At the height of the evacuations, some 17,000 people were calling the stadium home.

INSKEEP: Now, this is the day that President Bush visits Southern California to see what the wildfires have done. San Diego County is still threatened by out-of-control fires and property damage, just in that one county, totals more than $1 billion.

The news is much better in the Los Angeles area where all the major wildfires are said to be contained, but that does not mean firefighters are finished, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: For the first time in a couple of days, the skies around Santa Clarita, California, are mostly clear except for one column of off-white smoke.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

BRADY: A helicopter refilled its big tank with fire retardant and heads toward the column. For crews on the ground, there are many more smaller fires still simmering.

Damon Carson-Hull is with an elite crew called Hot Shots. They're part of the army of nearly 3,000 firefighters who descended on the Los Angeles area this week. The Hot Shots are waiting near a remote cabin. A scout has gone ahead to check out an island of unburned land.

Mr. DAMON CARSON-HULL (Captain, Stanislaus Hot Shots): Basically, it looks like a light bulb on a black mat, that's pretty much the shape of it. At the bottom of the light bulb would be where the structure is at.

BRADY: Just above that, at the base of the bulb, the crew will scrape a clean line in the ground. Then, if a second fire moves through the top of the bulb, it'll run out of fuel and stop before reaching the cabin.

Mr. CARSON-HULL: Around here, there's a lot of steep slopes, so we're going to put a big trench in so anything that might be on fire that would roll down and would be caught in the trench.

BRADY: At the same time, another crew of about five people heads out to look for isolated, half-burned trees that are still smoldering. Mac Sparks lead the crew.

Mr. MAC SPARKS (Crew, Fulton Hot Shots): Basically, I run the chain saw on the crew, put out in front of the rest of the boys to make a way for the guys with the hand tools, so they can get in there and make the trenches.

(Soundbite of chain saw)

BRADY: As good as the Hot Shot are, they know they're benefiting from a change in the weather. The Santa Ana winds are all but gone here. Still, there is plenty of smoldering wood that could flare up and cause another fire.

As the saw powers through tree limbs, others in the crew isolate the burned areas, creating what looks like a group of campfires. Rick Newton with the U.S. Forest Service said they are sorting the wood.

Mr. RICK NEWTON (District Ranger, U.S. Forest Service): If it's hot material, burnt material, they'll put it in the black, and if it's clean material that's not on fire, they'll put it in an unburned pocket.

(Soundbite of chain saw)

BRADY: It takes about five minutes to finish one burning tree. There must be thousands just like it. A steady wind could turn any of them into another raging wildfire.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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