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Thunderstorms could help or hamper CA firefighters

Posted: August 16, 2012 10:00 a.m.
Updated: August 16, 2012 10:00 a.m.
 

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Firefighters battling several raging wildfires in Northern California braced for the possibility of thunderstorms and strong winds late Wednesday, while crews struggled to save dozens of threatened homes in Southern California.

Crews worked to re-establish containment lines as the Chips Fire in Plumas National Forest threatened more than 900 homes and prompted voluntary evacuations.

Firefighters were able to improve fire lines during the day, but thunderstorms expected to move through the area late Wednesday or early Thursday could aid their work or make their jobs even more difficult, fire spokeswoman Alissa Tanner said.

"That's the biggest question," she said. "If the thunderstorms will just be rain and not gusts of winds, that will be a real blessing. If not, then it could spread the fire in many different directions."

The National Weather Service was predicting isolated thunderstorms for the area, but with only a 20 percent chanced of precipitation.

The blaze has burned 66 square miles and was 20 percent contained.

It's among the largest of nearly a dozen major wildfires burning across California that some 8,000 firefighters are battling, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Fire officials issued a statewide burning ban that will stay in effect until there's a significant change in the weather or until the end of fire season.

Elsewhere in Northern California, firefighters made significant progress against a wildfire in Lake County, despite dry weather and triple-digit temperatures.

The fire was 75 percent contained and hundreds of evacuees returned home after the blaze burned more than 12 square miles and had threatened nearly 500 homes in the Spring Valley community.

"We're definitely getting the upper hand on this fire," Berlant said.

Officials estimated the fire could be out as early as Monday.

In Southern California, wildfires threatened dozens of homes after burning through more than 24 square miles of brush in the midst of a brutal heat wave.

In rural San Diego County, a complex of five wildfires caused by lightning had burned more than 14½ square miles of wilderness, state fire Capt. Mike Mohler said. Evacuation orders were issued for the communities of Ranchita and Santa Fe, covering about 180 homes and 400 residents.

The two largest fires were above the desert floor in an area subject to erratic winds. Forecasts called for a return of monsoonal moisture that could create thunderstorms with even more erratic winds Thursday, Mohler said.

Meanwhile, a 4½-square-mile blaze in the foothills of Riverside County's San Jacinto Mountains threatened 47 homes, though officials lifted a mandatory evacuation order Wednesday.

The fire near the community of Aguanga, east of Temecula, burned four structures, including at least one home.

A resident living in a trailer was seriously burned and a second resident received lesser injuries after the fire broke out Tuesday, authorities said. Two firefighters received minor injuries.

Elsewhere in Southern California, a 273-acre wildfire caused by lightning in Joshua Tree National Park was nearly surrounded.

Military helicopters made water drops on the Jawbone Complex, two fires burning on more than 12,000 acres in rugged Kern County mountains above the Mojave Desert about 80 miles north of Los Angeles. The fires forced the Bureau of Land Management to temporarily close about 20 miles of the popular Pacific Crest Trail. The trail through three western states between Canada and Mexico draws thousands of hikers every year.

Berlant said officials were concerned that wildfire season began earlier than usual in the state.

"We have definitely seen an increase in fires this season in comparison to previous years," Berlant said. "Most of the damaging fires happen in September and October, not during the summer months."

He said other western states have been experiencing early fires as well.

"We're starting to see the same level of activity that's been occurring in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico," Berlant said. "We're just like the rest of the West; We continue to be hot and dry, just like them."

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