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Valley agencies move out

Northern San Joaquin Valley and foothills firefighters battling infernos in Southern California reported erratic winds Tuesday that complicated efforts to bring the fires under control.

At least 125 firefighters from the region are in Southern California or are headed there, along with California Highway Patrol officers and National Guard troops.

One of six strike teams with members from Stanislaus County agencies arrived Monday evening and immediately went to work protecting homes near Lake Arrowhead in the mountainous San Bernardino National Forest northeast of San Bernardino, said Battalion Chief Paul Spani of Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.

He said members of the team from Denair and Turlock saved a house after its shake roof caught fire. The team had been up for 35 hours as of midafternoon and knew it might be asked to work through the night if winds remained unpredictable.

"This is probably the worst I've seen in quite a while," Spani said by telephone. "It makes for a lot of erratic fire behavior. The Santa Ana winds are just terrible up here. You can go from having a slight breeze to having 20-30 mph gusts and even more."

The conditions made for fast-moving flames.

In Chula Vista, near the Harris fire, the ground was covered with ash and people who had masks were wearing them, said Bri Hays who grew up in Turlock and is a graduate student living three miles from the evacuation area.

"It was a little sobering seeing people packing up everything. We're just kind of preparing ourselves," said Hayes, 25, who is staying for now because her husband was reporting for Navy service.

Dennis Sisneros, a 21-year-old Stanislaus State student, returned home to Oceanside, in San Diego County, on Tuesday to help his family and found the streets vacant."There is an orange, grayish glow all over the place, and I'm starting to see some ash fall now," he said at dusk.

"Honestly, I haven't seen anybody outside. And I don't know if this is good or bad, but there is no wind, absolutely none. You don't hear birds. You don't hear anything."

The Northern San Joaquin Valley has sent about all the units it can, according to local agencies. The response includes a flood of firefighters, engines, bulldozers and National Guard personnel.

The six strike teams from Stanislaus County are made up of agencies in the county and other places in the region. They include contributions from:

Modesto: three fire engines and 12 firefighters

Stanislaus Consolidated: two fire engines and eight firefighters

Turlock City: one fire engine and four firefighters

Turlock Rural: one fire engine and three firefighters

Oakdale City: one engine and four firefighters

Oakdale Rural: two engines and eight firefighters

West Stanislaus: one fire engine and five firefighters

Salida: one fire engine and three firefighters

Ceres: one firefighter

Denair: one fire engine and three firefighters

Westport fire: a water tender and two firefighters

Mimi DeSimoni, a manager with Stanislaus County's Office of Emergency Services, said the firefighters are being assigned to fires while they are en route. Assignments include the fires known as Witch, Canyon, Grass Valley and Rice Valley.

"We've pretty much sent as many resources as we can," De-Simoni said. "The area's chiefs have been generous, but I think our resources are pretty tapped. Already, we're looking out to what we can do seven days from now to relieve the firefighters going now."

That could mean sending another wave, she said.

The county isn't alone.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Del Puerto station on the West Side, near Patterson, sent about 40 people, 10 of its 15 engines, two bulldozers, at least five firefighters for the bulldozers and about 15 overhead employees. Battalion Chief Steve Barrett said he anticipates the station also will be asked to send its helicopter.

Cal Fire's unit for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties sent 15 engines, 10 hand crews, a helicopter, a bulldozer and 15 overhead workers including battalion chiefs and mechanics.

Manteca sent an engine and four firefighters Sunday to the fires in San Diego.

Ripon anticipates sending an engine later this week after engine maintenance.

Twenty-two firefighters deployed from the Merced County, Merced, Atwater and Los Banos fire departments.

Stanislaus National Forest sent five engines, 25 firefighters, a bulldozer and two people to staff it, 40 hand crew members and about 20 overhead or support personnel.

CHP officers and National Guard troops also have headed south to help respond to the expected chaos sparked by evacuations.

On Tuesday, about 20 CHP officers from the Modesto office headed south for traffic control, and about 90 National Guard members from the 1-184th Infantry Battalion flew to San Diego, including 64 from Bravo Com-pany, based in Turlock, and 25 from the Headquarters Company in Modesto.

Members of Delta Company, based in Oakdale, were on their way Tuesday evening as the others set up operations at Morgan Field Airstrip in San Diego.

Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Barker, with the 1-184th, said they ex-pected to be assigned to security, such as monitoring checkpoints in evacuated areas to keep looters out of homes.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.

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