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Firefighters Target Stubborn Blazes in Northern California


Firefighters in California are making progress against 30 major wildfires still burning around the state. Since the end of June, crews have contained more than 2,000 blazes in what officials have called the biggest fire episode in California's history. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Junction City, California, the effort is the first round in a battle that is expected in coming months.

The fires were started by lightning. By early July, they had spread throughout the state, and came six weeks ahead of California's usual fire season.

Firefighters have contained most of the blazes, which have scorched more than 400,000 hectares of wilderness areas, but stubborn fires still burn near Junction City, a town of 800 in the northern part of the state. Some neighborhoods remain evacuated.

Personnel and equipment arrived from around the United States, as well as Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Greece.

Around Junction City, more than 3,000 firefighters and support staff are fighting these blazes.

They say job number one is protecting life and buildings, including cabins on these densely wooded hillsides. Firefighter Steve Nemore says dry conditions and rugged terrain have favored the fire.

"It's really challenging, I think, for everybody, from the ground crews to supervisors, because it's been great weather for fire," he said. "It's been variable, and the ground is so steep, and the trees are so big that it's really a challenge putting in lines where you would like to."

Firefighters clear underbrush, at times fighting fire with fire, using low-intensity flames to remove dead vegetation. Fire information officer Keith Jenkins explains what is called a burnout operation.

"What we are doing now is using the weather in our favor, and lighting small strips of fire that will be less intense, and that will carry into the head fire that is behind me," he said.

Crews at base camp work to keep supplies flowing for firefighters on the lines. Additional help has come from the California National Guard. More than 2,000 National Guard troops were mobilized, and more than 200 are working on this fire.

Lieutenant Colonel Dan Monaghan says his troops are ready for the mission.

"Many of the military principles apply," he said. "In many ways, it's like a light infantry mission, walking the hills, and navigational skills and things like that are required."

Some of these National Guard troops have had hard duty overseas. was deployed in Afghanistan. He says firefighting is just as demanding.

"Oh yeah," he said. "The first couple of days coming up and down these hills, you feel your legs saying, 'I don't want to climb anymore.' But you tell them, 'keep going, keep going.'"

Outside Junction City, firefighters are keeping watch on a Buddhist center close to the fire lines. It was established by a Tibetan meditation teacher in the 1980s.

Center resident Nancy Barton says fire is something that local people have learned to live with.

"When you choose to live in the forest, fire is just part of the life, very natural," she said.

State officials say these wilderness fires are the most extensive on record in California, but are not nearly as harmful to the state's economy as the fires last year in residential neighborhoods in Southern California. The officials say those blazes caused losses of more than $2 billion.

Still, it is early in the season, and firefighters say they are gearing up for a long hot summer.

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