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Firefighters struggle to save sequoias

Hundreds of firefighters struggled in erratic wind and rugged terrain Wednesday to save centuries-old giant sequoias from an out-of-control forest fire. Investigators arrested a woman whose campfire may have started the blaze.

The wildfire blackened more than 50,000 acres, half of that inside Giant Sequoia National Monument.

An unidentified 45-year-old woman was taken into custody Wednesday at her Bakersfield home on suspicion of causing the blaze, Forest Service Officer Brian Adams said. Authorities tracked her down from witness descriptions.

Flames got to within 2 miles of a grove of sequoias called the Trail of 100 Giants, and firefighters and forestry officials worried that the wind might push the blaze closer to those trees and other stands of the mighty redwoods.

The sequoias are built by nature to withstand fire, and actually depend on it to germinate. But an intense blaze that reaches the trees' crowns could kill them.

Forestry officials worry the wildfire is so intense, firefighters won't be able to save the big trees if the flames reach them.

The trees in the Trail of 100 Giants are up to 1,500 years old and 220 feet tall, with trunks up to 20 feet across.

Republicans' Medicare

bill snubbed by Senate

WASHINGTON _ Senators on Wednesday rejected a Republican-backed Medicare bill that would require elderly patients to pay substantial prescription drug costs before government help kicked in.

The 51-48 vote came as lawmakers continued to work on a compromise Medicare proposal after rejecting two plans Tuesday. Sixty votes were needed.

A group of Republican and Democratic senators met Wednesday night and discussed a compromise being drafted by Finance Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. That plan reportedly would cost about $400-billion over 10 years.

Finance Committee staffers began drafting language for the proposal after a Tuesday meeting with leading Democrats, including Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia, the sponsors of the Democratic proposal.

Committee spokesman Michael Siegel confirmed that the compromise being discussed would allow private insurers to administer the benefit.

ABORTION BILL ADVANCES: Antiabortion forces in the House once again pushed through a ban on a specific abortion procedure despite past legislative failures, court challenges and an uncertain future in the Senate.

The bill to ban what opponents call partial-birth abortion, taken up on an almost-annual basis since Republicans gained control of the House in 1995, passed 274-151.

President Clinton vetoed the legislation twice, in 1996 and 1997, but this time supporters of the ban have the president on their side. The White House said in a statement it strongly supports the bill.

First, though, it must be considered by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Court refuses to dissolve

homosexual marriage

HARTFORD, Conn. _ A gay couple's attempt to have their civil union dissolved was rejected by a Connecticut appeals court Wednesday in what is believed to be the first such test of the law outside Vermont.

Glen Rosengarten and Peter Downes were married in Vermont in 2000, six months after that state enacted the first law in the nation allowing homosexual couples to enter into something akin to marriage.

The Connecticut appeals court ruled that it cannot dissolve their union because Connecticut law does not recognize such relationships. Vermont remains the only state that allows civil unions.

Though anyone can get a civil union license in Vermont, state law requires at least one party be a Vermont resident before the family courts will rule on a dissolution. Rosengarten lives in Connecticut and Downes lives in New York.

Elsewhere . . .

SAMANTHA MOURNED: About 3,000 mourners packed a California church Wednesday night to say goodbye to 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, a child many knew through a photograph flashed during news reports of her abduction and slaying. Samantha's small brown casket was covered with pink roses. A program distributed at the service contained a picture Samantha had drawn of a little girl and a dog standing by a house with a heart-shaped window. On it, Samantha had written: "I love My Family alot more then enyboody in the hole World."

SHARPTON FILES SUIT: The Rev. Al Sharpton sued HBO for $1-billion Wednesday, saying he was defamed by the cable network's airing of a 1983 FBI surveillance tape of him discussing a drug deal. Sharpton said HBO showed a selectively damning portion of videotape in which he and a federal agent posing as a drug dealer discussed a cocaine shipment. The tape was aired Tuesday night on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.