California Wildfires

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As wildfires raged across the West, crews in California gained ground overnight on a major blaze that displaced residents and disrupted travelers while charring thousands of acres of bone-dry wilderness.

The state's largest fire, in the Inyo National Forest, was 55 percent contained Monday after cooler temperatures and lighter winds allowed firefighters to make their first meaningful progress since the lightning-sparked blaze broke out Friday, officials said.

Full containment was expected by Wednesday.

The 34,000-acre fire had destroyed at least one home and several
other structures, forced 200 residents of Independence to temporarily leave their homes and closed for a time as much as 115 miles of Highway 395, which shuttles travelers to recreation areas dotting the eastern Sierra.

On Sunday, reinforcements poured into the area, aiding efforts to corral the blaze. About 1,164 firefighters battled flames skirting the popular John Muir Wilderness north of Mount Whitney. They were supported by helicopters and air tankers.

"Things went well yesterday and last night and we're just hoping to really get a handle on this today," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Nancy Upham said Monday.

Officials were still assessing when they could reopen campgrounds and trailheads into the popular John Muir Wilderness, visited by tens of thousands of backpackers during the summer months. No hikers were threatened by the blaze, Upham said.

Crews also worked to protect major power transmission lines that feed the eastern Sierra and greater Los Angeles, fire information officer Jim Wilkins said.

An exceptionally dry winter season has left the eastern Sierra especially vulnerable this year, officials said.

"When an ember lands in the sagebrush, there's a 100-percent chance of it catching," Wilkins said. "You put a spark on it, it will ignite into fire."

Meanwhile, nearly 300 miles north, wildfires continued to burn near Antelope Lake in the Plumas National Forest.

More than 800 firefighters battled the blaze as authorities closed a 60-square-mile area around the lake to the public. The fire was 21 percent contained Sunday and had burned about 18,000 acres.

In Southern California, a wildfire burning in the Los Padres National Forest tore through more than 6,500 acres Sunday and continued to move into the rural hills. A water-dropping helicopter crashed, and two pilots suffered minor injuries, Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Eli Iskow said.

The aircraft went down outside the fire lines and the cause was under investigation. All air traffic over the fire was grounded for the day, hindering the fight.

Investigators said the fire was ignited Wednesday by sparks from metal-grinding equipment being used on private property near Los Olivos. It was 30 percent contained Sunday.

Farther east, firefighters surrounded a blaze Sunday afternoon that scorched about 815 acres near Canyon Country.

About 160 firefighters mopped up hot spots late in the day, working with hand tools to douse the remaining embers along a busy freeway.

A red flag warning indicating an increased risk of wildfires remained in effect for the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles County through midnight Monday.

The flare-ups came less than a week after firefighters managed to fully contain the Lake Tahoe fire that consumed 3,100 acres south of the scenic alpine lake and destroyed 254 homes.
Associated Press writers Raquel Maria Dillon and Christopher
Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)