Camper arrested after 55,000-acre fire destroys part of park

A CAMPER was arrested for allegedly starting a 55,000-acre fire that has gobbled swaths of Sequoia National Park and threatened some of the most treasured trees in the American forest system.

The fire appears to have been set accidentally, authorities said.

Peri Van Brunt, 45, was arrested on Wednesday and held on felony charges of unlawfully starting a fire. She was to be arraigned yesterday in the US District Court in Fresno, said Jim Paxon, spokesman for a national team of elite firefighters called in to manage the blaze.

Authorities tracked down Van Brunt, of Bakersfield, using witness descriptions. She allegedly went into a store at the Roads End Lodge in Johnsondale on Sunday saying she had been cooking hot dogs and her campfire had blown out of control, Forest Service officer Brian Adams said.

"She ran in the store and said 'help, I started a fire,'" Adams said.

Van Brunt then fled with her dog as 30 mph winds blew the campfire into a conflagration, witnesses said. Minutes later, everyone at the small lodge also fled, and the entire place burned down, leaving only the chimney.

"I hope she is the right woman," said lodge owner Marcia Burford, 40, who had time to snatch only a laptop computer, her son's guitar, money from the safe and a chequebook before evacuating. "I feel sorry for her because I don't think she realised what she did."

Fires weren't banned in the area - a narrow canyon where the Kern River cuts through the Sierra foothills - but the danger of fire has been considered extreme lately, and permits have been required. Van Brunt had not obtained such a permit, Ranger Judy Schutza said. Paxon said Van Brunt was co-operating with authorities. "They are looking at the case being accidental rather than arson," he said.

The fire, which started in Johnsondale, a hamlet about 130 miles north of Los Angeles, was 5% contained on Wednesday, with temperatures expected to reach triple digits yesterday.

More than 1,000 firefighters and 12 air tankers battled the blaze, and some 1,000 campers and residents have fled. At least 10 structures have burned and about 200 homes were threatened.

Flames reached as close as a mile to the Packsaddle Grove, a stand of ancient, towering trees including the Packsaddle Giant, which has the fourth-largest circumference of any sequoia.

Firefighters bulldozed a firebreak and set backfires to keep the wildfire away. "The only way to stop fire is with fire," Paxon said.

More in this section

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox