An army of firefighters battles blazes

The largest firefighting force ever assembled in the country -- an army of at least 17,000 people recruited from coast to coast -- is battling stubborn wildfires that have scorched at least 1.2 million acres in 14 Western states and Canada. The firefighters -- including New Englanders, Tennesseans, and Eskimos and Indians from Alaska -- have been assembled in the shortest period of time ever, says Scott Brayton, a spokesman for the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Fire officials say they are pinning their hopes for controlling the fires on man and machines, not on the weather, which remains hot and dry across most of the West.

The enormity of the fire problem is ``unprecedented this early in the season at this intensity,'' says Bill Bishop, another spokesman for the nation's firefighting nerve center.

But fire officials battling a 13,800-acre fire near Los Gatos, about 60 miles south of San Francisco, said they were glad to see a heavy dew on the ground Thursday morning. Scattered showers Wednesday afternoon brought cheers from firefighters, but weather experts say it will take more than a sprinkle to reduce the fire threat.

Firefighter Tony Acosta says crews have sacrificed brush to save buildings -- although at least 11 homes have been lost in the Los Gatos fire.

``We let [the fires] burn right up to the structure and then put them out,'' he said Wednesday. ``That way we don't waste water. We don't have a lot of water.''

Mr. Acosta spoke as he was taking his first bath since Sunday, using water from a broken sprinkler. He says he began working the fire Sunday at 6:30 p.m., got a four-hour break from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. Monday, and has been working more or less steadily since.

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