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Crews making progress in Northern California fires

Firefighters are girding for the possibility of more lightning storms.

June 26, 2008|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Firefighters continued to make headway Wednesday against hundreds of blazes that have charred more than 100,000 acres across Northern California in recent days, but were girding for the possibility of more lightning storms later this week.

Big fires continued to burn in rugged reaches of Butte, Mendocino and Monterey counties, and more than 2,000 homes remained threatened by approaching flames.

Authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation near Big Sur, where a fire ignited by a lightning strike last weekend has burned more than 19,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest, damaging or destroying 16 homes. More than 500 homes remained at risk.

Even so, the property loss from the various fires was relatively small considering the acreage burned, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Just five homes were lost in Monterey County, where lightning-caused fires scorched more than 20,000 acres, he said.

"There's been a lot of good work out there, and we're definitely making progress on a lot of these fires," Berlant said.

But weather forecasters were predicting more lightning storms, potentially similar to those that have ignited more than 1,000 blazes.

Jim Mathews, a National Weather Service forecaster in Sacramento, said that by Friday a weather system would move into Northern California.

Although it should help push away much of the smoke that has smudged the skies, the system also could bring the possibility of dry lightning, Mathews said.

"It'll be a double-edged sword," he said. "As the smoke clears, we'll get more heat that could increase fire activity. And there will be a better chance of thunderstorms."

Mathews said the thunderstorms initially might fail to drop much rainfall, creating dry-lightning conditions that pose a wildfire threat.

But as the weekend progresses, he said, the weather system should begin to drop rain.

"There's definitely a potential for more fires," Berlant said.

But with nearly 12,000 firefighters deployed around the state, firefighters can pounce quickly, he said.

"We'll definitely have them strategically placed across the state," he said. "But you never know where those strikes will happen and which will start fires."

In recent days, the California Army National Guard has provided manpower and aircraft. More than 50 aerial tankers and helicopters are battling the blaze, with reinforcements arriving from Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. California authorities have requested help from other states.

About a quarter of the fires caused by last weekend's lightning siege have been contained, Berlant said.

One of the most stubborn remaining blazes is in Mendocino County, where 900 residences remain threatened. An additional 1,000 could be in the path of a fire still burning in Butte County.

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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