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One person killed in Calif. fires; more troops coming

Saturday, July 12, 2008

PARADISE, Calif. -- One person was found dead inside a burned-out house Friday after a wind-fueled wildfire swept through a rural community in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a rare human casualty among the hundreds of blazes that have tormented the state for weeks.

Investigators believe the person died in the fire in the town of Concow, but they will conduct an autopsy on the burned body to confirm the cause of death, said Sgt. Steven Pelton, the county's deputy coroner-sheriff.

The town had been evacuated when the blaze approached early Tuesday, "but unfortunately not everyone chose to leave and you cannot force them to," Pelton said. "This appears to be one of those people."

A complex of blazes in Butte County already has destroyed 50 homes in Concow and forced some 10,000 residents of the nearby town of Paradise to flee.

Firefighters battling the out-of-control fires in the Sierra Nevada foothills thought they had caught a break Friday when strong winds they feared could blow hot embers across fire lines toward thousands of homes did not immediately materialize. The northeast winds forecast for the morning were expected to be similar to those that caused the fire to flare up earlier this week.

The Butte County fires have charred more than 76 square miles over the past two weeks and were about 55 percent contained.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered an additional 2,000 National Guard troops to help firefighting efforts around the state. President Bush planned a visit next week to survey the Golden State's wildfires, which have burned more than 1,100 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes.

The spate of fires had been remarkable not only for their scope, but also for the low number of fatalities and major injuries so far.

During a separate fire in Paradise last month, an elderly woman died after suffering a heart attack while voluntarily leaving her home. On July 2, a volunteer firefighter collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County and died at a hospital a day later.

Fire officials estimate about 320 fires were still burning in the state this week.

About 400 guardsmen were called in earlier this month, and more than half of them already are on the fire lines. The governor's office has said it's the first time in more than 30 years that the California National Guard has been deployed for ground-based firefighting.

The governor's office said the additional 2,000 Guard troops Schwarzenegger ordered will be trained and deployed over the next few months. Schwarzenegger also announced Friday that help was on the way from Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

President Bush planned to visit California next Thursday to get a briefing on fire damage. White House spokesman Trey Bohn did not say exactly where Bush planned to go. The president also planned to attend a private Republican fundraising event in Napa that day.

A letup in the wind aided firefighters in eastern Washington state battling a wildfire that erupted Thursday in a heavily wooded part of the Spokane Valley. It destroyed at least 13 houses and forced 200 residents to evacuate. No injuries have been reported.

The cause of the suburban Spokane fire, which grew to nearly 2 square miles, was not immediately known.

That fire and others prompted Gov. Christine Gregoire to declare a state of emergency across all of Washington on Friday. That freed equipment, firefighters and funding for efforts to quench the flames.

State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland said a half-dozen major wildfires east of the Cascade Range were straining resources. In addition, some Washington firefighters have been working on the California blazes but are returning, he said.

"Our resources are really thin," Sutherland said. "It's going to be another hot, dry weekend."


Associated Press writer Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Wash., contributed to this report.


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