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Firefighters gain upper hand on Ponderosa blaze

August 23, 2012 |  9:29 pm

Water drop on Ponderosa fire

Under a thick cover of smoke, firefighters and inmate crews Thursday chased the stubborn Ponderosa fire into a blind canyon and declared victory over it, even as a string of almost a half a dozen other wildfires forced Northern California residents from their homes.

“We're 1,500 feet from tying it up on the rock bluffs,” said Cal Fire Branch Director Magnus Jonsson from a ridge overlooking what he and more than 2,500 firefighters battling the wildfire hoped would be the Ponderosa's last stand in Tehama County.

In five days the wildfire had blackened nearly 28,000 acres of timber and destroyed 64 homes. By sunset, the massive wildfire was reduced to a one-eighth-mile line in a steep, rugged draw.

To the east, the North Pass fire advanced to nearly 18,000 acres into the Mendocino National Forest, endangering 45 homes and prompting its own evacuations. By midday it remained only 10% contained.

Elsewhere, state and federal fire crews, prison inmates and county firefighters drawn from one end of California to the other were still working to contain or clean up fires in Tehama, Modoc and Plumas counties.

The Barry Point fire in Modoc County has consumed more than 93,000 acres of woodland since Aug. 6, and the Chips fire in Plumas County has been burning since July 29, despite the efforts of more than 1,000 firefighters. The U.S. Forest Service on Thursday said the Chips fire was only about 50% contained.

Cal Fire officials said six people have been injured so far on the Ponderosa fire, including a state firefighter who fell Thursday from a rock outcropping.

The Ponderosa fire and at least three others were sparked by a lightning storm on Saturday. By Monday, the Ponderosa had threatened more than 2,000 homes as it raced up canyons, crossing from Tehama into Shasta County and forcing evacuations. Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday declared a state emergency in the area, freeing up state resources to fight the Ponderosa and other fires.

By Thursday morning, the tide had turned, and Cal Fire officials began to lift evacuation orders, allowing residents to reenter most areas on the perimeter of the fire.

Sacramento resident Pauline Dow was relieved to find her family cabin, encircled by scorched earth and blackened trees, safe in its green oasis adjacent to the aptly named Battle Creek. She watched as a helicopter dropped loads of water on one of the fire's last live areas just in front of her property.

She said she was grateful for the state prison fire camp workers -- more than 550 inmates -- who did most of the labor cutting fire lines, working 24-hour shifts with shovels and axes in terrain too rough for bulldozers and fire hoses to reach.

“Thank you, I love you!” she shouted.

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-- Paige St. John in Red Bluff

Photo: A helicopter makes a water drop Thursday on the Ponderosa fire. Credit: Paige St. John / Los Angeles Times

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