HAYFORK, Calif. — Cooperative weather and nonstop work allowed firefighters to make headway Tuesday against what had become the most threatening of California's rash of lightning-sparked fires--a series of blazes that have burned 67,000 acres in Shasta and Trinity national forests.
Throughout Northern California and parts of other Western states, firefighters continued to make steady progress against the huge blazes that have blackened more than 660,000 acres of forest and rangeland.
However, some California officials feared that weather changes could reverse the precarious gains made since the fires first broke out Aug. 28.
All but 162 Contained
Huge fires still raged in Klamath, Shasta, Trinity and Mendocino national forests. But fire officials said all but 162 of the 1,243 California fires had been contained.
On Tuesday evening, however, the 52,500-acre Mendocino National Forest blaze, which had been declared contained earlier in the day, "broke out again," Sgt. Ben Delany of the California Army National Guard said. "That's not good."
It was the largest of three fires still burning in the preserve, 150 miles north of San Francisco.
The 128,000-acre Stanislaus National Forest fire, which had been the No. 1 "hot spot" and where more than 6,600 people had been evacuated, was declared 35% contained. "People are going back to their homes," Jim Geiger, fire information officer for the California Department of Forestry, said Tuesday. "But we still have a lot of work to do."
The overall fire picture had improved in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, officials said.
Firefighting efforts had been helped by lower temperatures and higher humidity, Geiger added.
"We're cautiously optimistic," he said but added: "We just don't know if the weather will turn on us. We're seeing a low-pressure system coming in, and humidity is dropping. That's not good."
In Shasta and Trinity national forests, bulldozers and hand crews worked together through the night to cut and widen fire lines between the blazes and Hayfork, as well as nearby Peanut, Hyampom and Trinity Pines.
The two fires that posed the biggest threat to structures--the Peanut fire, which had inched toward Hayfork, Peanut and Trinity Pines, and the Gulch fire, which consumed one house and several barns in Hyampom--were about 90% contained Tuesday afternoon, with firefighters still punching back aggressive hot spots that occasionally jumped the line.
Residents of Trinity Pines had been evacuated, fire officials said. There are about 200 homes in the community, they said, but only half are used year-round. It still could be several days before residents are allowed to return.
Madelenne Moyer of the Red Cross evacuation center at Hayfork Elementary School said she is serving about 75 meals a day, although only about a dozen Trinity Pines residents have chosen to sleep there at night. Other evacuees were either staying with friends or camping with the fire crews at the county fairgrounds just outside of Hayfork.
Predict Control Soon
Some fire officials were confident enough to predict control by the week's end--if the weather holds up.
"The weather is being very cooperative today," Phil Carroll, a federal Bureau of Land Management spokesman in the county seat, Weaverville, said Tuesday. "Temperatures are down and the humidity is up." There had also been some sprinkles, which officials hoped would develop into showers.
However, the improved weather conditions paradoxically caused some bad results. One fire crew reported that it was so humid they had trouble lighting defensive backfires. And the new fair weather sometimes causes the inversion layer to lift--venting the dense smoke but feeding fresh air to the fires.
"It (the inversion layer) is both a blessing and curse at the same time," said Jeff Stephens, a forestry department spokesman in Hayfork. "It packs the smoke in like a pressure cooker, which makes the crews sick and hampers air operations. But at the same time, it makes the fire lie down and move very slowly, which helps the ground crews."
The value of the inversion layer was demonstrated late Monday, when the Bear Fire near Hyampom built up a column of super-hot air that punched through the blanketing effect of the inversion layer. This vented the smoke but allowed fresh, oxygen-rich air to rush into the fire, which quickly swept over an additional 1,000 acres.
But the inversion layer has been weakening for several days now and is weakest in the late afternoon, said Jack (J. C) Clark, a state forestry spokesman based in Hyampom.
"As long as we keep the cap on, we will be all right," he said, adding that he is unsure of how long that will be. "The atmosphere is starting to change. I can see it; I can smell it."
Such uncertainty tempered good news here about the rapid pace of containment and remarkably light structural damage.
"If the inversion doesn't stay with us like it has all week," Stephens said, "this could all get hot in a hurry."