Guard called to fight fires

ALBION, Calif. - Sweat rolled down Lisa Mirander's forehead as she hacked a tangle of saplings and brush down to bare dirt to prevent a wildfire from spreading. It was a tough job, but no harder than the 13 months she served in Afghanistan.

California's wildfire season has become so severe so swiftly that for the first time in more than 30 years, National Guard troops have been deployed to fight the flames on the ground. Many are arriving at the fire line just after returning from combat zones.

For Mirander, the two jobs share some similarities.

In combat, she said, 'you worried about the bullets. Here, you got the fire.'

The Guard is stepping in as crews across the state struggle to contain hundreds of lightning-sparked fires that have burned more than 1,000 square miles and destroyed nearly 100 homes in the last three weeks.

Mirander, a 27-year-old student, left behind her husband and a 7-year-old stepson in Riverside to spend one month working 12-hour days battling the flames.

'It's pretty awesome,' she said of working alongside other troops. 'We really stand by each other.'

The first wave of 200 troops took their places Wednesday, providing 'a breath of fresh air' to crews on the ground, said Dan Burns, an assistant fire chief who was helping integrate the Guard into the firefighting effort.

'It'll really relieve a lot of pressure out there,' Burns said. 'The state got hit by so many fires at once - we couldn't staff them all.'

Because this fire season started so early, the firefighting conditions have been among the worst in memory, even among longtime crews, said Terence McHale, policy director for CDF Firefighters of Cal Fire, the union representing the firefighters.

'We have firefighters who've been working nonstop since mid-May, who haven't seen their families or homes, who are working 24-hour shifts, 21 days on, sometimes putting in 36 hours in the initial attack of a fire,' McHale said. 'It's an incredible challenge.'

By Thursday, 1,450 fires had been contained, but more than 320 were still active. For instance, in Butte County, north of Sacramento, more than 50 homes have been destroyed, and another 4,000 are threatened. The flames forced 10,000 residents to evacuate.

Along the scenic Big Sur coast, 27 homes and 31 other structures have burned in a fire that has consumed 140 square miles.

Farther south, a separate blaze in the Santa Ynez Mountains had blackened more than 15 square miles. It was more than half contained. And at the southern tip of Sequoia National Forest, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, a 53-square-mile blaze was almost a third contained.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the California National Guard to the front lines and expects to call up more troops. On Thursday, he requested additional resources from President Bush.