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Alpine fire: Local crews join efforts

weaker winds anticipated

January 03, 2001

ALPINE (AP) — A fire that tore across 10,230 acres of dry brush and destroyed houses burned into a second day Thursday, but the fierce Santa Ana winds that had fanned the flames were expected to die down.

Two teams from the Imperial Valley joined other firefighters at the blaze, which had burned five homes and threatened others as of this morning.

According to El Centro fire Battalion Chief Chris Petree, the first team of 22 Imperial Valley firefighters left for Alpine just before 1 p.m. Wednesday. The contingent included firefighters from the Brawley, Calipatria, Imperial County, El Centro and Calexico departments.

A second team of 10 firefighters on three engines left about 5 p.m. after fire coordinators called asking for any help the Imperial Valley could send. They included firefighters from the county, Centinela State Prison and Holtville departments.

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Petree said he'd had no communication with the firefighters who went to the fire Wednesday.

The blaze in eastern San Diego County burned uninhibited for most of Wednesday and was just 10 percent contained Thursday morning. It was unknown when the fire, which shut down a highway and two casinos and chased as many as 300 people from their homes, would be fully contained.

The fire started before dawn Wednesday and burned swiftly in gusts up to 65 mph. The wind was far weaker Thursday morning, and was expected to die down altogether by noon, National Weather Service meteorologist Ted MacKechnie said.

Conditions remained unusually hot and dry. Temperatures were expected to top 80 in the region with humidity between 8 percent and 15 percent, MacKechnie said. Normal conditions for this time of year would be highs in the low 70s with humidity around 30 percent.

At least four houses and one trailer home were destroyed by the blaze, which started along Interstate 8 and forced authorities to close a 12-mile stretch of the highway for 11 hours and to evacuate homes along both sides.

Hundreds of homes, casinos on the Viejas and Sycuan Indian reservations, and a San Diego County detention center were evacuated, forcing many people into makeshift shelters at local schools and a community center. Some people had been allowed back into their homes early Thursday. Two people suffered minor injuries, including a firefighter who sustained burns to his face.

About 50 miles northwest in Riverside County, a 150-acre wildfire briefly threatened four homes and caused a minor firefighter injury. The blaze was 10 percent contained early Thursday.

A smoky haze thick enough to show up on satellite images blanketed San Diego County, turning the sun blood-orange and raining ash at least 30 miles away.

The battle continued through the night, said Thomas Ace, fire chief in Alpine, a city of 10,500 about 30 miles from San Diego. Another 1,000 firefighters were expected on the fire lines Thursday and the California Air National Guard was standing by on alert status.

Firefighters were using 90 fire engines and bulldozers through the night. Helicopters and air tankers were expected to resume air drops Thursday.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

All that remained of Dave and Patricia Cookson's two-story home was a wrought-iron balcony lying twisted in the debris, which resembled the wreckage from a bomb blast.

The Cooksons ran outside with their three young children to see the early morning sky blazing orange. Swirling embers singed his hair and burned his T-shirt, Dave Cookson said.

He pulled photos from the wall and threw them into his near-empty hot tub, along with a humidor and wetsuit. He covered the hot tub before fast-approaching flames forced him to flee on foot.

‘‘I was bumping into trees, the smoke was so bad,'' he said. Within minutes, the flames consumed his property.

There has been little rainfall in eastern San Diego County. Less than a hundredth of an inch was recorded in December. It was the driest December in about 70 years.

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On the Net:

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: http://www.fire.ca.gov/

Staff Writer Marcy Misner contributed to this article.

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