Rest in Sight for Crews as Fires Let Up

By: Amanda Fehd AP
By: Amanda Fehd AP

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Less than three dozen fires remained active
Monday, a month after a dry lightning storm lit Northern California
ablaze - and pushed thousands of residents out of their homes and
the state's firefighting resources to its limits.

Thirty-three fires were still burning, down from more than 2,000 since the June 21 lightning storm began what officials have called the largest fire event in California history. Nearly 1,480 square miles have been scorched across the state.

The progress, helped by cooler, moist weather, has allowed officials to pull back weary fire personnel, which numbered about 25,000 at the peak of the blazes. Now that number is down to 15,600 and is expected to drop dramatically by week's end, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

California's skies also got a break as pollution readings returned to normal. For several weeks, fire soot had created dangerous levels in Northern California and the Central Valley, prompting warnings for people to stay inside.

It's now safe to go outside and exercise again, said Dimitri Stanich, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

"It's dramatically improved. At the peak event, we were getting 'very unhealthy' and 'hazardous' (readings) and now we are in the good range for most of California," Stanich said.

Four days after mandatory evacuations were ordered in parts of rural Trinity County, firefighters saw clear skies for the first time in weeks. The evacuation orders for Junction City, however, would remain in place at least through Monday, said Lynn Ward, spokeswoman for the county's Office of Emergency Services.

The wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that was threatening the town of 800 residents was 56 percent contained after charring 89 square miles.

"They're gaining ground on it, and with the weather cooperating, they're able to do burnout operations within the fire to remove hazardous fuels," said Tom McCampbell, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

A handful of residents also were still affected by evacuation orders in Shasta, Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties. Authorities said most of California's remaining blazes are on remote federal forest lands and pose little threat to homes.

Near the coast, thick fog and backfires helped crews in their battle against a wildfire that previously had threatened thousands of homes in the Los Padres National Forest around Big Sur. That blaze was 70 percent contained after burning about 209 square miles and 27 homes.

Officials say this monthlong fire event wasn't expected to be the only one this year, as the state continues to be plagued with drought. September and October typically bring the most devastating blazes.

"We often see little thunderstorm cells that come in in the summertime. The precipitation it brings is not enough to get into the vegetation, the grasses, to really have a long-term impact on the fire behavior or potential," Berlant said. "It may decrease it for that day or another couple days, but it only takes a few days of dry conditions to bring that potential back again."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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