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Fire personnel search for hot spots, cause

March 24, 2011

CalFire investigators continue to search for the cause of the Center Fire that destroyed 19 homes in Big Pine last weekend as firefighters monitor the burn area to ensure that no hot spots flare up this week. Photo courtesy Kiana Wyatt

With more high winds forecast this week, firefighters remain in Big Pine monitoring the burn area left by the Center Fire that destroyed 19 homes on Friday.
CalFire investigators are also on scene, assessing damages, the path of destruction and the blaze’s point of origin near the Bernasconi Education Center as they determine a cause.
“The fire was called at 100 percent contained at 18:00 (6 p.m.) Sunday, but we still have resources on scene mopping up and looking for hot spots,” said CalFire Battalion Chief Mike Smith.
As of Tuesday, CalFire had three hand crews and one engine monitoring the burn area. Smith said crews are going over every square foot of the fire’s path to be sure there are no hot spots that could reignite as winds picked up throughout the week.
Smith said fire crews will be using the wind this week as a tool to search for any hidden hot spots.
“We’re going to use the wind to test the fire to ensure it is not going to flair up on us,” Smith said. “We are literally going through right now and counting the smoke that we find. (Monday) we had a crew that was out all day and reported that they only found one hot spot.”
Smith said crews will be monitoring the burn area at least through Friday. “We want to make sure we put this to bed,” he said.
As fire crews continue monitoring the burn area, investigators are busy at the point of origin attempting to determine what caused the blaze.
Investigator Bart Chambers said that, as the investigation is ongoing, no details will be released.
Chambers said he hopes the investigation team will be able to release a completed incident report by week’s end and refused to share anything further.
The Inyo County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting Tuesday in Bishop to discuss the fire and its impacts on local residents.
The board unanimously ratified a declaration of a state of emergency drafted by County Administrator Kevin Carunchio. A declaration of a state of emergency must be approved by Governor Jerry Brown, and Carunchio said he has not yet heard from state officials if the Governor will approve the declaration, but added that Senator Jean Fuller is working with state officials to move the process forward.
Carunchio said that declaring a state of emergency will open funding avenues for the county’s over-time costs associated with the fire and subsequent clean-up and state assistance for victims of the fire.
“Without a presidential declaration, there are no other public funds available for the victims,” Carunchio said. Of the 19 homes destroyed, Carunchio said the county is learning that many were underinsured or not insured at all.
Fourth District Supervisor Marty Fortney pointed out that many residents in local communities are unable to obtain insurance due to the high risk of wildland fires.
A preliminary damage estimate released by the county puts the cost of replacing and repairing the damaged and burned structures at $4.5 million.
It could have been much worse.
“This is another example of an exceptional, exceptional effort by the community,” Carunchio said. “We received support from every fire agency in the Eastern Sierra except Olancha, the Sheriff’s Department had all hands on deck, Health and Human Services did what they do best, and had three shelters opened for the victims, and the Road Department was on hand with barricades and road blocks. We can all be proud and very grateful that we didn’t lose more homes.”

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