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Heroic firefighters toiling against California inferno

by Staff Writers
Jamul, California (AFP) Oct 24, 2007
Braving ferocious, fast-moving infernos to save property and lives, California's weary firefighters are once more being feted as the heroes of the crisis ravaging the region.

Some 8,900 firefighters are battling the myriad fires that have erupted across the sun-baked state since Sunday, in some cases toiling away for 18 hours at a time in thick smoke and fierce temperatures.

Progress against the flames is frustratingly slow. Hours of work can be undone by a simple shift of the hot desert winds that blow across California, leaving firefighters scrambling to readjust their point of attack.

In one of the worst blazes, the 29,000-hectare (72,000-acre) Harris Fire near the US-Mexico border, US Forest Service firefighter Jerry Amador and his comrades are battling to protect a small cluster of homes.

"We have the winds in our back, pushing the fire away from us which is what we want," says Amador, who has been toiling in the hot zone for 18 hours.

"So far the main danger that we have is the wind coming in our face. If that happens we would eat a lot of smoke and get some flames."

Amador is attempting to prevent the fire from leaping across a road to where the houses are situated.

"It's holding, it's not extinguished yet but it seems we're holding it so far. As of now our mission is accomplished in this section," he said.

Back at the command center of the Harris blaze, John Bender, 25, a firefighter with the San Diego Rural Fire District, spoke of his frustration at the challenges posed by the wind.

"The wind was messing with us today," said Bender. "You put in all that work for nothing. And in the end you've just got to start all over," he added, preparing to snack on a packed lunch of sandwiches, chips and fruit.

Another firefighter, Dean Walker, revealed that he had been seconded from his duties in neighboring Arizona to assist.

"My chief let me go because he thought it would make me a better firefighter," Walker said. "I just want to help."

Another firefighter, his face blackened by grime and sweat, his eyes wearing a glazed look of exhaustion, said the punishing demands of the blaze were taking their toll.

"We've had guys out there for many, many hours," he said, asking not to be identified. "There are people who've been working nearly 60 hours straight. They've not stopped. They're just starting to get some downtime."

The firefighter said the priority remained saving life and property rather than fire suppression. "Life safety is the focus right now," he said.

California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger paid tribute to the firefighters on Wednesday.

"They are really extraordinary, they are working 24 hours a day, around-the-clock. In fact many of them have been working 36 or 48 hours without stopping," Schwarzenegger said.

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More than 500,000 flee as California fires rage for third day
Los Angeles (AFP) Oct 23, 2007
More than half a million people were ordered to evacuate across California on Tuesday as wildfires raged for a third day, razing over 1,000 homes and threatening to overwhelm weary firefighters.

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