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California fires show limits of firefighting

Natural forces often trump modern technology and advanced research when it comes to controlling blazes.

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Fighting wildfires is more than a matter of pointing hoses at the flames and hoping for the best. Just like military generals, fire chiefs study the battlefield, predict the enemy's moves, and deploy troops to vulnerable flanks.

It helps that fires tend to follow well-known rules. Still, models based on decades of research are often unable to predict a fire's path when weather conditions get in the way. Fire strategy and high-tech devices haven't been able to stop blazes from wreaking havoc in southern California, pointing to the limits of fighting and forecasting wildfires, especially in a region where gusts of dry winds change direction and speed up with no warning.

Case in point: San Diego's mammoth Cedar Fire grew at amazing speeds, allegedly caused by hunter shooting a signal flare into the air east of the city. Whipped by the region's perennial Santa Ana winds, the fire moved too fast to allow firefighters to forecast its path and surround it.

"You've got a fire that went from 1,000 acres to 115,000 in 12 hours," says Bob Wolf, president of the California Department of Forestry firefighters' union. "I've been a firefighter for 22 years and I've never seen anything like it."

Indeed, for the crews throughout southern California, this week's blazes represent what many call a "career fire" - an epic battle that will stay with them through their lives.

The deployment of resources was massive, but also not enough to prevent devastation. Some 10,000 firefighters worked throughout the state.

Gov. Gray Davis activated the California National Guard and called for firefighters from out of state. Early Tuesday, some fire trucks and helicopters were on the way from Arizona and Nevada. President Bush declared four counties disaster areas, qualifying them for federal aid.

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