Guard joins battle against fires

ALBION, Calif. — Sweat rolled down Lisa Mirander’s forehead as she hacked a tangle of saplings and brush down to bare dirt to prevent a wildfire from spreading. The job was a tough one but no harder than the 13 months she served in Afghanistan.

California’s wildfire season has become so severe so swiftly that for the first time in more than 30 years, National Guard troops have been deployed to fight the flames on the ground. Many are arriving at the fire line just after returning from combat zones.

For Mirander, the two jobs share some similarities.

In combat, she said, "you worried about the bullets. Here, you got the fire."

The Guard is stepping in as crews across the state struggle to contain hundreds of lightning-sparked fires that have burned more than 1,000 square miles and destroyed nearly 100 homes in the past three weeks.

Mirander, a 27-year-old student, left behind her husband and a 7-year-old stepson in Riverside to spend one month working 12-hour days battling the flames.

"It’s pretty awesome," she said of working alongside other troops. "We really stand by each other."

The first wave of 200 took their places Wednesday, providing "a breath of fresh air" to firefighting crews on the ground, said Dan Burns, an assistant fire chief who was helping integrate the Guard into the firefighting effort.

"It’ll really relieve a lot of pressure out there," Burns said. "The state got hit by so many fires at once, we couldn’t staff them all."

Because the fire season started so early, the firefighting conditions have been among the worst in memory, even among longtime crews, said Terence McHale, policy director for CDF Firefighters of Cal Fire, the union representing the firefighters.

"We have firefighters who’ve been working nonstop since mid-May, who haven’t seen their families or homes, who are working 24-hour shifts, 21 days on, sometimes putting in 36 hours in the initial attack of a fire," he said.

By Thursday, about 1,460 fires had been contained, but more than 320 were still active. In Butte County, north of Sacramento, more than 50 homes have been destroyed, and another 4,000 are threatened. The flames forced 10,000 residents to evacuate.

Firefighters Thursday positioned themselves on the banks of the Feather River opposite Paradise, preparing for a wind change. The winds expected this morning are similar to ones that caused the flare-up Monday night.

"They’re monitoring that fire and trying to keep it on the east side, so it doesn’t cross over to the west bank" and reach the town, said Tobie Edmonds, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Lloyd Knifong, who has lived in Paradise since 1960, was preparing to spend a sleepless night with 20-year-old son Kyle, defending their home and several others lined on two sides by 70-foot pine trees. A fire engine was parked nearby, and sprinklers were rigged onto roofs.

"When we see it coming, I’m going to empty my pool and get everything nice and wet. Then we’ll leave," he said.

Along the Big Sur coast, 27 homes and 31 other structures have burned in a fire that has consumed 140 square miles.

Farther south, a blaze in the Santa Ynez Mountains had blackened more than 15 square miles. It was 75 percent contained. At the southern tip of Sequoia National Forest, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, a 53-square-mile blaze was almost a third contained.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the National Guard to the front lines and expects to call up more troops. On Thursday, he requested more resources from President Bush, and officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said they were reviewing the request.

"We now face extremely high temperatures and increased fuel loads that are exacerbating fire conditions and putting our communities and firefighters and other first responders at risk," he wrote. "We sit at a critical tipping point in California that requires immediate federal help."

Conditions are expected to worsen, with a continuing heat wave and more lightning storms forecast the rest of the week, Schwarzenegger said.

Officials who trained the Guard members were impressed by their morale as they prepared to face fires.

"It feels good — not that it didn’t feel good to serve in Iraq. It really feels good to be helping out at home," said Jacques Lewis, 51, a postal worker in San Francisco who spent a year in Iraq training soldiers on safety around nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

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