Heavy rains in California dampen ground in one fire zone, strand firefighting crew

Other News Materials 14 July 2008 06:29 (UTC +04:00)

Violent thunderstorms brought rain bursts that modestly helped firefighting efforts Sunday, but the downpours also triggered mudslides that complicated California's unfolding wildfire disaster.

"If it isn't fire, it's flood. If it isn't fire or flood, it's the mud," said Christina Lilienthal, an interagency fire spokeswoman. A "horrendous" amount of precipitation in the Sequoia National Forest dampened the ground, but also caused a creek to flood, cutting off a firefighting crew's escape route when a road washed out, she said.

The firefighters did not need the escape route, because fires burning nearby did not threaten them. They moved to higher ground as a precaution against the rising waters, Lilienthal said.

A huge mudslide in an area that was devastated by wildfires last year damaged about 50 homes and caused the temporary closure of a main road in the California town of Independence on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Severe thunderstorms Saturday set off the mudslide, which was 300 yards (274 meters) wide and up to three feet (90 centimeters) deep, said Carma Roper, spokeswoman for the Inyo County Sheriff's Department.

The mud oozed across California Highway 395, prompting a detour, and some mud reached the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Residents of more than 50 homes were evacuated, she said. The rain did nothing to help with the fires, which were not burning in that easternmost corner of California.

And no rain fell on most of the other California fires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 288 blazes were still burning around the state, most in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

There was no rain in Butte County, north of Sacramento, where thousands of homes were threatened as recently as Friday. But moist air and calmer winds Sunday morning helped firefighting efforts in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Thousands of people who were evacuated from their homes twice in the past month began returning to Paradise for the first time since Tuesday.

About 300 homes remained threatened in and around the town, down from 3,800 homes on Friday, and officials said the fire was 55 percent contained.

An evacuation order was lifted on Sunday for the nearby town of Concow, one ridge away from Paradise and prone to strong winds, Butte County and fire officials said.

Fifty homes were destroyed and one person was apparently killed in the area last week when wind-propelled flames jumped a containment line. The person's charred remains were found Friday in a burned-out home; the cause of death had not been determined.

The Butte County blazes were among hundreds of wildfires to blacken nearly 1,200 square miles (3,100 square kilometers) and destroy about 100 homes across California since an enormous lightning storm ignited most of them three weeks ago.

Just to the south, a pair of blazes burning in the foothills west of Lake Tahoe were sending plumes of smoke toward the alpine resort area. The soot was sporadic, but air quality was so bad it prompted the cancellation of the annual Donner Lake Triathlon.

Residents in the tourist town of Big Sur, driven away by flames just days ago, were returning to their homes and cleaning up, said Paul Van Gerwen, a CalFire battalion chief stationed in the area.

On Sunday morning, state authorities reopened the last piece of scenic Highway 1 near Big Sur that had been closed because of the fires, he said.

The fire was 61 percent contained after destroying 26 homes, and all evacuations near the town of Big Sur were lifted, he said.

Firefighters continued to make progress against a fire that has raged through the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. As of Sunday morning, fire crews had contained 85 percent of the fire and expected to complete the containment lines on Wednesday, U.S. Forest Service spokesman David Daniels said. Fifty-five homes remained under evacuation warning.

In far Northern California, the Trinity County Sheriff's Department ordered evacuations in sparsely populated communities in the mountains west of Redding.

Isolated thunderstorms were expected across parts of Southern California, said Steven Van Horn, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Oxnard. The moisture from the south was starting to move up the state and isolated storms were expected over the mountains farther to the north.

But Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said more than patchy rain was needed to douse California's unprecedented early fire season, especially in the north.

In Washington state, 200 residents from Spokane Valley who were forced to evacuate Friday were allowed to return to their homes as firefighters mopped up a fire that burned 1.5 square miles (3.9 square kilometers), AP reported.