7 Feb 2009, 3:46pm
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More Mudslides, Floods in Wildfire-Ravaged Southern California

AP, Fox News, February 07, 2009 [here]

LOS ANGELES — Stormy weather is still threatening floods and mudslides in areas of Southern California that were burned bare by wildfires.

The National Weather Service has issued flash flood watches through Saturday afternoon for burn areas as well as for valleys, foothills and coastal areas from Ventura to San Diego counties and the Inland Empire.

Meteorologists say the second wave of a Pacific storm front could dump an inch of rain or more, with showers, isolated thunderstorms and possible lightning strikes.

Jamie Meier, a weather service meteorologist in Oxnard, says some Los Angeles County foothills have received more than 4 inches of rain since the first wave of storms moved in Thursday.

On Friday, a mudslide inundated streets in the Sierra Madre foothills northeast of downtown Los Angeles, closing some streets for several hours. Another slide left about 3 feet of mud on a road in the San Fernando Valley community of Sylmar. … [more]

Mudslides Trounce Folks in Sylmar and Sierra Madre

NBCLosAngeles.com, February 07, 2009 [here]

Sylmar, Calif. – Persistent rain finally loosened soil Friday night in the hills above Sylmar creating several mudslides.

The worst rain-related slide occurred in Lopez Canyon near Baily Road shortly after 8 p.m. People scrambled to get out of the canyon Friday night. At least two cars were trapped in a debris flow. There were no reported injuries.

The huge “Sayre Fire” burned through the hills above Sylmar in November of last year stripping the landscape and creating conditions that promote mudslides during heavy rains. … [more]

Note: fires last year near Sylmar and the San Fernando Valley include the Sayre Fire (11,234 acres) [here], the Marek Fire (4,824 acres) [here], and the Sesnon Fire (14,703 acres) [here].

26 Jan 2009, 2:05pm
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Senators support logging as stimulus

by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 01/26/09 [here]

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch joined a bipartisan group of senators urging the stimulus package include $1.52 billion in funding to log and thin national forests to reduce the potential for huge fires.

The money, which would be spent over two years, would go to the $2.75 billion worth of hazardous fuel reduction projects identified by the Forest Service. Sen. Ron Wyden, the principal author of a letter calling for the spending, said it would create 50,000 jobs.

In additional to Wyden, Crapo and Risch, the letter was signed by Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and New Mexico Democrats Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

They said the projects will quickly create jobs and help rural communities. “The projects would also lead to significant cost savings in the long term as the reduction of the hazardous fuel loads and the restoration of forest health would help prevent uncharacteristic and costly wildfires.”

How costly?

Last year the Forest Service and Department of Interior agencies spent more than $1.85 billion on fire suppression. The senators hope that investing in fuels reduction and forest restoration, fire-suppression costs could be reduced by half in five years. That may be optimistic, but if the projects are done right that will make communities feel safer.

Then forest managers can make better fire decisions. That can be good for the budget and for the health of the forest ecosystems.

25 Jan 2009, 9:33pm
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Court rules in favor of logging project… too late

By EVE BYRON, Helena Independent Record, 01/22/09 [here]

Three environmental groups couldn’t quash a project on national forest lands meant to lessen the threat of wildfires near Clancy and Unionville southwest of Helena, but it appears that the tiny mountain pine beetle has made the Helena National Forest rethink its plan.

In a decision issued Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Helena forest’s 2003 plan to undertake commercial thinning and other efforts to remove small trees and vegetation on about 1,500 acres. However, Helena District Ranger Duane Harp said the prescription is only good now for about 100 acres containing Douglas fir trees, since about 90 percent of the trees on the remaining 1,400 acres — mainly lodgepole pines — are now dead.

“We are obviously extremely pleased that the Ninth Circuit has found in our favor. But it’s bittersweet news because with the current beetle epidemic, the vast majority of the project area, which was proposed for timber harvest, is now dead,” Harp said. “You can’t use the prescription for green trees on dead trees.

“So I guess we’ve implemented the no-action alternative.” … [more]

9 Jan 2009, 5:35pm
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Fire, climate and thinning

Sierra Summit: Conversations and observations about California’s mountains — Tom Knudson’s Blog, Scaramento Bee [here]

January 8, 2009

My recent article about the Moonlight Fire in Plumas County - and how scientists now believe climate change is helping to spark more destructive wildfires - drew a number of responses about the value of thinning over-crowded stands before a fire starts. You might think of it as preventative medicine - and while controversial among some environmentalists - it has been shown to reduce the damage caused by today’s increasingly severe fires.

From Chester, Jay Francis, forest manager at the Collins Pine Company - wrote to say that the same day the Moonlight Fire began (Sept. 3, 2007), another fire started on his company’s property about 15 miles to the west. “Officials estimated it had been burning for about 10 hours (overnight) when they first arrived on scene yet they were able to catch it with just 1 engine and a water tender,” Jay wrote in an email. “Human caused, probably a cigarette, but probably not intentional. The big difference is that our fire was in an area that had been biomass thinned about 12 years ago and then logged again (for the 4th time) about 3 years ago. Quite a contrast.”

Jay attached a photo of the Collins Pine fire, shown immediately below. A few smaller trees have obviously been killed, but many more bigger ones survived. Now compare that with a different photo - one at the bottom of this blog. That picture, which I took this fall, shows an over-crowded mixed conifer stand in the Plumas National Forest north of Indian Valley that not been thinned and was severely burned by the Moonlight fire. Not much living remains. … [more]

and a blog comment, by oldforester:

As a ‘65 Cal graduate forester and retired U.S. Forest Service District Ranger from the Lassen National Forest with 33 years of forest fire fighting experience, I can state without reservation that restoration forestry, including forest thinning, is the only way that we can maintain our vast and beautiful forests. They must be returned to conditions similar to what the pioneers encountered over 100 years ago: fewer conifer trees per acre with sunlight feeding the wealth of plants which provided food and cover for a greater variety of animal life than we now find. The only way to return to these conditions is through sound forest management practices. Forest fuel loadings must be reduced or we will see more fires with greater devastation to watersheds, wildlife habitat and people. Those truly interested in a healthy forest ecosystem and carbon sequestration, realize that we must tend the garden as the Lord ordered Adam those thousands of years ago. The native peoples did it, now it is [our responsibility].

Obama picks Salazar as Interior secretary

By Jim Tankersley and Julie Cart, LA Times, December 16, 2008 [here]

Reporting from Washington — President-elect Barack Obama plans to name Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to lead the Interior Department — an appointment that could put the brakes on several controversial energy development projects across the West.

Two senior Democrats said Monday that Obama would name Salazar, a Latino, to the post, rounding out an energy and environmental policy team announced at a Chicago news conference.

If confirmed, Salazar would head a department with a broad portfolio, including managing the troubled Bureau of Indian Affairs. Salazar, 53, would also oversee the nation’s national parks and other large swaths of public lands, making him the country’s foremost landlord. And he would be responsible for the Bureau of Land Management, which sets policy for oil and gas drilling, mining and other resource extraction on public land. … [more]

10 Dec 2008, 10:37pm
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Another Arson Suspect in Esperanza Fire

By J.P. Crumrine, Idyllwild Town Crier, Dec. 11, 2008 [here]

The defense attorney for accused murderer and arsonist, Raymond Lee Oyler, now has inadvertent support from the federal government for his contention that another more likely person was an arson suspect at the time Oyler was arrested.

The previously undisclosed U.S. Forest Service investigative report was prepared last summer, but it chronicles the events of three prior fire seasons — 2005, 2006 and 2007. During the same period that Oyler is accused of setting more than 20 fires in the Banning Pass — including the Esperanza Fire in which five Forest Service firefighters lost their lives — the Forest Service was actively investigating one of its own employees.

The suspicions about Michael K. McNeil, then a fire investigator for the San Bernardino National Forest, were sufficient enough to warrant placing a tracking device on his government vehicle twice in two years. Suspicions about McNeil began as early as August 2005. By June 2006, a thorough investigation into McNeil’s past work and fire investigation capabilities had begun.

Prosecutor Michael Hestrin would not discuss how he got the report. The District Attorney Office’s Public Information Officer Michael Jeandron confirmed that state and county investigators were aware of the federal concerns about McNeil.

“McNeil was known about and was excluded as a suspect prior to Oyler being arrested,” Jeandron attributed to Hestrin. At least three of the fires for which Oyler is charged for starting were on the list of fires McNeil might possibly have started.

Mark McDonald, Oyler’s attorney, will use the report to argue that McNeil is the real arsonist. Except for the fire devices that contained Oyler’s DNA, McDonald believes this report strengthens his defense. …

In July 2007, McNeil was promoted to assistant district fire management officer on the Lassen National Forest. Subsequently, he was arrested for making terrorist threats and is in a Los Angeles County jail.

McNeil had been a firefighter in Utah and California since 1995. His entire career has been associated with unexplained, mysterious and, perhaps, arson-caused fires. … [more]

8 Dec 2008, 10:10am
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Carbon: The Biochar Solution

By LISA ABEND / ITHACA, Time.com, Dec. 04, 2008 [here]

On his farm in the hills of west virginia, Josh Frye isn’t raising chickens just for meat. He is also raising them for their manure. Through a process that some scientists tout as a solution to climate change, food shortages and the energy crisis, Frye is transforming the waste into a charcoal-like substance called biochar that in the long run could be far better for the world than chicken nuggets. “It might look like this is just a poultry farm,” says Frye. “But it’s a char farm too.”

Burn almost any kind of organic material — corn husks, hazelnut shells, bamboo and, yes, even chicken manure — in an oxygen-depleted process called pyrolysis, and you generate gases and heat that can be used as energy. What remains is a solid — biochar — that sequesters carbon, keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere. In principle, at least, you create energy in a way that is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.

And the benefits only begin there. When added to thin and acidic soil of the kind found in much of South America and Africa, char produces higher agricultural yields and lets farmers cut down on costly, petroleum-heavy fertilizers. Subsistence farmers seeking better soil have traditionally relied on slash-and-burn agriculture, which generates greenhouse gases and decimates forests. If instead those farmers slow-smoldered their agricultural waste to produce charcoal — in effect, slash-and-char agriculture — they could fertilize existing plots instead of clearing more land. This in turn would reduce emissions in the atmosphere, and so on in a virtuous circle of environmental renewal.

Could it really be that simple? It appears to have been for the original inhabitants of the Amazon basin. In the 16th century, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana wrote home describing the remarkably fertile lands he had discovered there. In the 19th century, American and Canadian geologists uncovered the reason: bands of terra preta (dark earth), which locals continued to cultivate successfully. Research revealed that the original inhabitants of the region had added charred wood and leaves — biochar — to their lands.

Centuries later, it was still there, enriching the soil. “You couldn’t help but notice it. There would be all this poor, grayish soil, and then, right next to it, a tract of black that was several meters deep,” says Johannes Lehmann, a soil scientist who worked in Manaus, Brazil, in the late 1990s. After he left the Amazon in 2000 for a job at Cornell University, N.Y., Lehmann started wondering what would happen if farmers today could make their own terra preta. He has found one answer in a field trial in Kenya, where 45 farmers achieved twice the yield in their corn crops with biochar than with conventional fertilizers. … [more]

3 Dec 2008, 11:44am
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Fires above Sun Valley create avalanche danger

The Associated Press, 11/29/08 [here]

KETCHUM, Idaho — Wildfires that charred thousands of acres near this central Idaho ski resort in 2007 continue to create headaches for avalanche forecasters wary of snow slides on areas burned clear of sagebrush and other vegetation.

The Castle Rock Fire of 2007 forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes and burned to within 50 yards of a $12 million Sun Valley ski lodge atop Bald Mountain.

Despite recent restoration work that’s included putting down mulch and seeding areas with native grasses and shrubs, the scorched areas remain prime avalanche country, said Janet Kellam, the head of Ketchum’s three-person Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center.

Of particular concern are burns just outside Sun Valley’s main ski resort on Bald Mountain, where newly brush-free slopes could lure unsuspecting skiers and boarders to duck under ropes and into harm’s way.

“I am concerned about out-of-bounds Baldy,” Kellam told the Idaho Mountain Express. “Very much so.”

Last January, an unusual series of avalanches here hit residential areas and closed a road for six days. The slides were caused by storms that combined rapid snowfall and fierce winds, a common recipe for high avalanche danger. Several homes suffered extensive damage as snow swept over them. … [more]

29 Nov 2008, 11:06am
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Burn pile blamed for Fallen Leaf fire

by Adam Jensen, Tahoe Daily Tribune, Nov. 27, 2008 [here]

Wind stoking the smoldering remnants of a prescribed burn pile likely caused a small wildfire near Fallen Leaf Lake last week, a fire official said Wednesday.

The fire started at about 2 p.m. Nov. 20 and burned about an acre near Angora Ridge before firefighters contained the blaze shortly after 5 p.m.

While it’s not uncommon for slash piles to smolder following a prescribed burn, the origin of the blaze surprised firefighters because of rain at the South Shore shortly before the fire, said Lake Valley Fire Protection District Chief Jeff Michael.

The pile was left over from a Lake Valley prescribed burn about two weeks earlier and had been checked by firefighters “several times” in the interim, Michael said.

The Fallen Leaf fire [was] started [on property owned by the Tahoe Conservancy] following a Nov. 4 announcement from Cal Fire indicating recent rains had ended the fire season in the region. … [more]

Thanks to Tallac for the hot tip. See also [here]

14 Nov 2008, 12:40pm
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Firefighters race to stop Tea Fire before winds erupt

By Thomas Watkins, Associated Press, 11/14/2008 [here]

MONTECITO, Calif. – Firefighters struggled to get control of a raging wildfire [the Tea Fire, here] Friday that destroyed more than 100 homes and injured 13 people in this Mediterranean-style coastal town that has been home to celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Oprah Winfrey.

Firefighters said they had to work fast before the winds picked up. Evening winds known locally as “sundowners,” gusting up to 70 mph from land to sea, pushed the fire with frightening speed Thursday, chewing up mansions, exploding eucalyptus trees and turning rolling hills into a glowing nightmare.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County on Friday as residents waited anxiously for word of their homes. Many of them fled flames with just a few minutes’ notice.

Helicopter pilots worked through the night, using night vision goggles to drop water on the flames. At daybreak Friday, nearly 20 copters and air tankers were on the job, emergency officials said.

“We’re going to have a very, very tough day today for firefighting and when the winds kick up this afternoon, we’re going to have an incredibly challenging situation,” said Santa Barbara County fire chief Ron Prince. “Control of this fire is not even in sight.”

Authorities say the fire broke out just before 6 p.m. Thursday and spread to about 2,500 acres — nearly 4 square miles — by early Friday. It destroyed dozens of luxury homes and parts of a college campus in the tony community of Montecito and an unknown number of homes in neighboring Santa Barbara. The cause was not immediately known. There was no estimate for containment. … [more]

18 Oct 2008, 12:05am
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Wildfires Cause Ozone Pollution to Violate Health Standards, New Study Shows

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, October 09, 2008 [here]

BOULDER—Wildfires can boost ozone pollution to levels that violate U.S. health standards, a new study concludes. The research, by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), focused on California wildfires in 2007, finding that they repeatedly caused ground-level ozone to spike to unhealthy levels across a broad area, including much of rural California as well as neighboring Nevada.

The study was published today in Geophysical Research Letters. It was funded by NASA and by the National Science Foundation, which sponsors NCAR.

“It’s important to understand the health impacts of wildfires,” says NCAR scientist Gabriele Pfister, the lead author. “Ozone can hit unhealthy levels even in places where people don’t see smoke.”

Although scientists have long known that wildfires can affect air quality by emitting particles and gases into the air, there has been little research to quantify the impacts. Fires worsen ozone levels by releasing nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons, which can form ozone near the fire or far downwind as a result of chemical reactions in sunlight.

The researchers, using a combination of computer models and ground-level measurements, studied intense California wildfires that broke out in September and October of 2007. They found that ozone was three times more likely to violate safe levels when fire plumes blew into a region than when no plumes were present.

At the time of the wildfires, the public health standard for ozone set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was 0.08 parts per million over an eight-hour period. The EPA has since tightened the standard to 0.075 parts per million. Under the stricter standard, the number of violations would have nearly doubled.

While ozone in the stratosphere benefits life on Earth by blocking ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, ozone in the lower atmosphere can trigger a number of health problems. These range from coughing and throat irritation to more serious problems, such as aggravation of asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Ground-level ozone pollution also damages crops and other plants.
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28 Sep 2008, 11:31am
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Forest Service’s Gap Fire Report Raises Debris Alarms

By Sonia Fernandez, Noozhawk Staff Writer, 09/06/2008 [here]

The U.S. Forest Service has released its Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Assessment, a report describing the impacts of the Gap Fire and what measures the agency intends to take in response.

According to the report, the Gap Fire burned about 9,544 acres, roughly half of which was located on Los Padres National Forest land.

The blaze, which started July 1 and burned the foothills directly above the Goleta Valley, affected several facilities, including the Southern California Edison powerline, a Goleta Water District treatment plant, and the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board underground water pipeline and reservoirs. Orchards, roads and a cultural site were also damaged by the fire.

The report labeled the soil burn severity as moderate, but rated the potential for flooding as “high to very high,” and warned of threats to both life and property, particularly in the areas directly downstream of the burned watersheds. Approximately 300,000 cubic yards of sediment is at risk of descending.

“Increased flooding, sedimentation and debris flow probability have the potential to damage 120-plus residences, 70-plus business properties, impact Highway 101 and the railroad, which could result in closure, close the Santa Barbara Airport, cause power outages if debris flows affect the powerline, and affect domestic water supplies through impacts to the water treatment plant and the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance board water pipeline,” said the BAER report.

“These potential serious and long-lasting impacts to downstream values are estimated to be over $23 million.”

The airport, it said, could lose an estimated $1.4 million per closure, and a $10 million wetland restoration project in the Goleta Slough could be destroyed. … [more]

Note: the erosion from the 9,544 acre Gap Fire is dwarfed by the erosion and flash flooding caused by the 240,000 acre Zaca Fire (2007) [here] and the 244,000 acre Basin/Indians Fire (2008) [here], both of which were also on the Los Padres National Forest. Over half a million acres of the LPNF have been incinerated in the last two years.

24 Sep 2008, 12:48pm
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Guest View: Fire plays a critical role in Lake Tahoe’s past, present and future

by Terri Marceron, Forest Supervisor for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service, in the Tahoe Daily Tribune, September 23, 2008

By choosing to live in the Lake Tahoe Basin, we have chosen to be a neighbor to fire. Long before we arrived, lightning strikes ignited wildfires that cleared brush and dead trees from the forest floor and kept the remaining trees widely spaced. These fires were frequent and small in size, typically with low flame heights.

Over the past century, as more people have settled around Lake Tahoe, we have aggressively suppressed fires. Forests once described as open and parklike now are dense with fuels. A thick understory of smaller trees, brush and dead vegetation carries fire to the treetops. Once there, the fire can begin a rapid and intense spread through the narrowly spaced crowns. The unintended result of decades of fire suppression has been a higher risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Clearly, we can’t turn back the clock and allow wildfire to fully resume its natural role. We must suppress wildfires that threaten our communities. But using fire on our terms, called prescribed fire, is an important tool for reducing the fuel load in our forests and restoring them to a healthier condition.

Currently, the most common prescribed fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin is pile burning. The piles represent a final step in the first phase of treatments to thin forests, limit the fuel available to a wildfire and reduce the opportunity for fire to spread to the tree crowns.

Many local residents support pile burning. Even when they’re bothered by the smoke, they understand that the inconvenience is temporary, particularly compared with the intensity and duration of smoke from a catastrophic wildfire. Nonetheless, every year, questions arise about why the Forest Service and other agencies pile and burn. … [more] (Be sure to read the comments after Marceron’s essay. They are very good.)

18 Sep 2008, 10:44pm
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Our Fire, Our Fight

A brutal burn season in Klamath country leaves locals grumbling at federal firefighting tactics

By Malcolm Terence, Northcoast Journal, Sept. 18, 2008

I don’t think I’d ever seen Jim Bennett mad before this year’s fires came through his place. And Bennett is no stranger to fire. Before he retired in 1996, he’d worked 32 years as a fireman for the U.S. Forest Service on Salmon River. Fire had burned near his place in 1977. The canyon filled with brush and post-fire logging slash, then burned again in 1987. All this and Jim Bennett, the calmest man on the river, finally got angry after the out-of-town firefighters brought the latest fire down to his backyard this summer.

“The fire team isn’t here to put it out. They want to steer it around,” he grumbled. “They started the burnout at my place at the wrong time. Three o’clock on a hot afternoon is not a safe time in this drainage. They were in a hurry. They had a goal to get the line burned out up to Forks of Salmon by 1800.” (That’s 6 p.m. to ordinary clock-watchers.)

He said the bad timing made the burnout ignition so hot that the fires breached a fireline at a water-filled ditch above his place and the crews backed down to save the structures in his small neighborhood. “They tell me, ‘You still have your house,’” he said contemptuously. It is not his usual style of speech.

Bennett is chief of the Salmon River Fire and Rescue and no stranger, he explains, to the use of fire to prevent a worse fire. His Karuk father and grandfather told him about how the Indians used to burn late in the fall until the US Forest Service banned the practice. He, himself, remembers how the cowboys used to light fires in the high country meadows when they brought down their herds of cattle in the late fall. “They all knew when to burn. When they stopped that burning, the high meadows became brushfields.” … [more]

17 Sep 2008, 3:32pm
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Task force called in to protect Crescent Lake structures

Hwy. 58 shut through the day; evacuees will be out until at least Thursday

By Barney Lerten and Keisha Burns, KTVZ.COM [here]

Last Updated: Sep 17, 2008 01:00 PM

A fast-growing wildfire blackened about 400 acres on the Deschutes National Forest northeast of Crescent Lake Tuesday afternoon, forcing closure of a 12-mile stretch of state Highway 58 and evacuation of about 100 homes and 120 people in the small town of Crescent Lake Junction and nearby areas.

Bulldozer lines were built around the Royce Butte Fire’s perimeter overnight, but erratic winds continued to send spot fires jumping over the lines Wednesday, said Jean Nelson-Dean of the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville.

The fire, estimated at one point late Tuesday at 1,000 acres, was reduced to 600 acres, then 400 acres Wednesday morning due to more accurate mapping. The fire was 10 percent contained by midday Wednesday.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has declared the fire a conflagration, clearing the way for the state fire marshal to mobilize firefighters and gear to help local resources fighting the blaze.

Central Oregon’s “Conflagration Interface Task Force 1″ was activated around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, with firefighters from Bend, La Pine, Black Butte Ranch and other agencies called to the La Pine Fire Station 101 and dispatched to help protect homes and businesses threatened by the fire. Officials said this was a staffing move and did not mean dangers had increased overnight.

A task force from Lane County also was en route, and a task force from Klamath County was on scene, officials said.

Eleven evacuees spent the night at a Red Cross shelter set up at Crescent Community Center, with dozens more checking to make friends and loved ones aware of their whereabouts, said Red Cross disaster coordinator Bobbie Bourne. She said she expected more to do so, once they learn they won’t be able to return home until at least Thursday.

A community meeting to give the latest info and answer questions is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Crescent High School music room, 201 Mountain View Dr., officials said.

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