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In the News - Friday, JUNE 1, 2007

Only in the June 1 print edition:

WHS graduating seniors

receive $400,000-plus in scholarships


Woodlake High School

Class of 2007 (portraits)


Tharp’s Peak wildfire arson-caused

   On one of the busiest of days of the year for the Horse Creek area at Lake Kaweah, at least one Memorial Day reveler found the temptation of lighting some tinder-dry fuel a little too much to resist. That’s the scenario according to investigators from Cal Fire’s fire prevention office who said Wednesday the 418-acre holiday blaze that charred the west-facing slopes of Tharp’s Peak was the work of an arsonist.
   In fact, the very same firebug might have staged a rehearsal or two for the most recent fire by setting several blazes in the vicinity of Lake Kaweah in the last two years. One of those fires was started at the same Highway 198 turnout, located a quarter-mile east of the Horse Creek Bridge.
   Battalion Chief Paul Marquez, who was raised in Three Rivers and is heading up Cal Fire’s investigation of the incident, said he can’t reveal why the department has determined the recent “Horse Fire” to be arson-caused, but there was evidence at the scene. A scene, he said, that has some striking similarities with other fires that have occurred in the area.
   What was different about the other fires is that they occurred on weekdays when there was only the slightest chance of a witness. On Memorial Day, there were hundreds of boaters, campers, fishermen, and passing motorists, some of whom might have seen someone or something suspicious.
   One Lake Kaweah park ranger said he was in the vicinity of Horse Creek Campground just before 12:30 p.m. when he spotted smoke and flames at the flashpoint. Within a minute or two, fire was quickly spreading to an arroyo of thick brush just below the turnout.
   By 12:35 p.m., two engines from Three Rivers were on the scene and calling for more equipment. Within the hour, three air tankers from Porterville were dropping retardant and hundreds of firefighters were making their way to the scene.

  “When Cal Fire receives a call like that one, the standard procedure is a wildland dispatch,” Chief Marquez said. “Our strategy is to first attack the fire from the air in an attempt to stop it from spreading in one direction or another.”
   Initially, the air-attack aircraft spotter ordered the tankers to drop retardant a few hundred yards up-canyon in an attempt to keep the fire from endangering the two nearby homes that are just over the ridge from where the blaze started. Lake Kaweah visitors, including dozens of boaters, watched the aerial theatrics as air tankers banked and swooped within 200 feet of the flames, dumping precisely-aimed load after load. Some of the pilots’ handiwork may be still seen from Highway 198 in the bright orange swaths that define the northeast and southwest perimeters of the fire.

  “When we have a nearby water source like Lake Kaweah, helicopters can also assist the air tankers in slowing the fire with water drops while we mobilize ground personnel,” Marquez said.
Two U.S. Forest Service helicopters, one from Peppermint (near Camp Nelson) and the other from the Columbia Air Base in Tuolumne County, scooped a succession of buckets from the nearby lake basin just below the Slick Rock Recreation Area. Hundreds of swimmers and picnickers at Slick Rock continued their Memorial Day festivities uninterrupted as the nearby fire merely furnished some unexpected excitement.
   Within the next couple hours, the hand crews began to arrive from Mountain Home, Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, and eventually Riverside. Though there were some anxious moments as the fire burned upslope and over the ridgetop, it was 50 percent contained by 8 p.m.

  “We were very fortunate to be able to get after the fire aggressively with so many hand crews,” Chief Marquez said. “The air tankers slow the fire but the crews that dig the lines surround the blaze and eventually make certain that we put it out.”
   That night (Monday, May 28), glowing embers and flames burning at the highest elevations were visible for a hundred miles. By 6 a.m. Tuesday, the fire was 80 percent contained.

  “There was still a lot of mop up and monitoring for hot spots,” Chief Marquez said. “This morning (Wednesday), we officially demobilized, although Three Rivers firefighters will continue to patrol the burned out area for the next several weeks just in case of a flare up.”
   Throughout the Horse Fire, more than 520 personnel and dozens of Cal Fire/Tulare County engine companies assisted in dousing the blaze. Among the small army of personnel were 14 hand crews and equipment operators that hauled and manned six dozers.
   Chief Marquez said everyone was fortunate this time in what could have been a tragic ordeal. Cal Fire is asking anyone who might have been a witness to anything suspicious, to call Chief Marquez at 636-4120.

Town Hall to

examine Measure R

   Are you wondering how all that new sales tax revenue that voters approved (Measure R) for the county’s road projects will be spent? Then plan on attending the next Town Hall meeting scheduled for Monday, June 11, 7 p.m., at the Three Rivers Memorial Building.
   The meeting is being sponsored by the Three Rivers Village Foundation who had hoped to be in summer hiatus, resuming its monthly meetings in September. But Tom Sparks, the foundation’s president, said that Measure R is a hot button and can’t be put on hold.

  “If we hope to get a piece of the pie in the first year’s budget we have to come up with some projects immediately,” said Sparks. “The spending priorities have already been determined for some mega-projects like the widening of Mooney Blvd., Avenue 416 through Dinuba, and Road 80.”
   What’s at stake for Three Rivers is at least a share of the first $31 million that’s expected to become available for road projects in the first three years. The cities are pushing the county to start this summer on the connector roads and fund the regional projects like widening Highway 99 and Highway 198 later.
   In Three Rivers, the focus tends to be more on urgent road repairs and less on the future. Ted Smalley, deputy director of TCAG (Tulare County Association of Governments), said Measure R will accomplish some maintenance that has been waiting 50 or 60 years, but he agreed that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.
   Relative to the future, Sparks said, there is Measure R money in the first year set aside for bike lanes, or facilities like a transportation center. We could get started, he said, by doing the engineering and design work that would be necessary.
   One idea that’s been proposed is a county partnership with the new Visalia park shuttle. If the County of Tulare could strike a deal with the City of Visalia, the shuttle could run both ways morning and evening and eventually year-round. A more realistic schedule would attract more visitors and benefit Three Rivers commuters to the park and downtown Visalia.
   For more information about the Measure R meeting or how to become involved with the Village Foundation, call Tom Sparks, 561-0406.

THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH is published every Friday in Three Rivers, California.
EDITORS/PUBLISHERS: John Elliott and Sarah Barton Elliott
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