SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- An air tanker lost its wings and crashed in flames while battling a wildfire in Northern California, killing all three crew members on a tumultuous day of firefighting.
Within hours of the crash, a fire engulfed crews trying to corral a blaze in Southern California, causing three injuries and shutting down a major highway.
The accidents, which come as crews battle 20 large blazes in 11 states, could signal that the fire season in the West will be particularly dangerous.
"These things happening in the middle of June do not bode well for the remainder of the year," said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry's San Bernardino unit.
The fire deaths and injuries came on the same day that a U.S. Forest Service worker in Colorado appeared in court on charges alleging she started that state's biggest fire while burning a letter from her estranged husband. If convicted, Terry Barton could face a total of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The Northern California fire, in the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite National Park, destroyed at least one home and forced 400 people to evacuate as it consumed some 10,000 acres of brush and forest near the small mountain resort town of Walker.
The C-130 tanker had just made a pass over the fire when it crashed Monday. TV news video showed the aircraft's wings snapping off and flames pouring out as the fuselage spiraled to the ground, erupting in a giant ball of fire.
"I'm standing here looking at the tail section," Mike Mandichak, who owns an auto shop 150 feet from the crash site, said by telephone. "My shop is right next door. It almost hit it."
The Interagency Incident Management Team said the plane was under contract to the government from Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc., of Greybull, Wyo.
Hours later in Southern California, three firefighters suffered first- and second-degree burns to their hands, elbows and noses when flames engulfed their two trucks. One of the firefighters managed to deploy an emergency shelter as the heat peeled the paint off the fire engines, which were parked on a highway. They were listed in good condition at Arrowhead Regional Hospital, said Peters.
The blaze shut down Interstate 15, the main route connecting Las Vegas to Southern California. Late Monday, the southbound side of the interstate was reopened, but the northbound lanes remained closed indefinitely as ash rained down on the area.
"A lot of people are terrified," said Perry Van, 42, of Pinon Hills, about 10 miles west of the fire.
The blaze blackened about 5,500 acres of brush and forest land and destroyed one structure. It was only 15 percent contained late Monday night, but had moved away from homes, and people who had been evacuated earlier were allowed to return.
In southwestern Colorado, a 26,700-acre fire near Durango forced the evacuation of 700 homes Monday. Since Saturday, residents have left 1,700 homes in the hills north of town, and at least one home has burned.
Forty miles southwest of Denver, the largest wildfire in the state's history also continued to burn but settled down during the night with cooler temperatures. The blaze, which was started June 8, allegedly by the forestry worker's burning letter, has blackened 103,000 acres and destroyed 25 homes.
The fire flared up Monday and authorities called for the evacuation of about 100 homes west of Colorado Springs -- dispiriting news for 5,400 people across the area who are still waiting to go home. The ordered remained in effect Tuesday.
"We can see our home from the highway and we can see that it's OK, but we can't go there. We drive up and down the road six or seven times a day to see it," said Harold Petersen, who sat outside his motor home with his wife, Christy, keeping a close eye on the flames.
On the Net:
National Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov
Sierra Fire Center: http://sierrafront.net
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