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NEWS/VIDEO REPORT:Placer County fires now nation's No. 1 priority

200 more firefighters, aircraft being brought in for Government, Westville fires
By: Gus Thomson
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Forest fires burning Tuesday on both sides of the North Fork American River canyon in Placer County were ranked No. 1 in the nation. Incident commander Paul Summerfelt said Tuesday that the ranking by federal and state officials means the current force of 800 based out of Foresthill and Blue Canyon would be immediately bolstered by another 200 firefighters. Summerfelt said priority status among the nation and state's fires would mean the incident command team, with the U.S. Forest Service, would be getting "all the aircraft and resource needs we ask for." Speaking before the county Board of Supervisors, Summerfelt said eight helicopters are now based out of the Blue Canyon airstrip and fire-retardant-filled air tankers are flying out of Sacramento. The addition of 200 firefighters represents 10 new crews to work on the Government Springs fire, on the Interstate 80 side of the canyon, and the Westville fire, which is located on the Foresthill side. Foresthill Road has now been closed at Sugar Pine Reservoir, east of Foresthill, with bucket-equipped helicopters dipping for water there and boaters not allowed on the water. The Westville fire became "very active" Monday, while the firefighters are attempting to establish a line along the steep canyon ridge on the Government Springs fire, Summerfelt said. The Government Fire has burned more than 6,000 acres while the Westville Fire has burned more than 2,000 acres. Both fires are located in the Tahoe National Forest. The fires started 17 days ago after a lightning storm that touched off hundreds in remote areas around the state. Rui Cunha, the county Office of Emergency Services program manager, said firefighters statewide fought nearly 1,700 separate blazes this fire season, with a count of 335 still burning by late Sunday. Forty-eight of those fires were unstaffed and burning uncontrolled. A total of 19,000 firefighters are on the fire lines or providing support around the state – giving the Auburn fire about 5 percent of the total. More than 600,000 acres of wildland has burned so far, Cunha said. Located in relatively inaccessible areas, the Placer County fires are far from being reined in. Summerfelt said it’s a two-hour drive from the Blue Canyon camp to the fire lines on the Government Fire. "It's going to burn awhile, I've got to be real honest with you, but we're making significant progress," he said. With winds kicking up Monday, virtually every other fire site in California was experiencing problems, he said. But for the time being, the Placer County fires were the No. 1 priority for resources in both California and the nation, Summerfelt said. Supervisor Bruce Kranz, whose district takes in virtually all of the forested eastern end of the county, said that his fear is the area is in just the start of the fire season and things could continue to worsen. “We’re at tremendous risk in the 5th District,” Kranz said. The supervisor also noted that work has already taken place on increasing shaded fuel breaks in recognition of the severity of the amount of fuel load in Placer County's mountain country. The Journal's Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.