- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) - Most evacuations were lifted Saturday near a Southern California wildfire that threatened more than 7,000 buildings as firefighters caught a break in the weather and redoubled efforts to surround it.

At the same time, impending thunderstorms carried the threat of lightning and gusty winds that could spark new fires in the California mountains.

The blaze that erupted on June 17 in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles was reduced to “a lot of creeping and smoldering” after higher humidity and cloudy weather moved in, said Lee Beyer of the U.S. Forest Service.

More than 2,000 firefighters made progress on the active northeast corner of the blaze. The fire was now 50 percent surrounded after scorching more than 47 square miles of desert brush and forest timber.

Authorities reopened Highway 38 and ended mandatory evacuations for most of the areas that were threatened. Only the Burns Canyon area remained under the order.

“We’re probably down to just a few hundred” threatened homes, Beyer said. “The sticky, humid weather of yesterday really lowered the fire behavior.”

The most active area was in the high, steep, remote San Gorgonio Wilderness Area, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. It has no roads, so crews were forced to hike in and work with hand tools, he said.

However, because of the chance of thunderstorms, authorities planned to fly about 120 firefighters out of the region by evening and keep them out until the danger passes.

“They don’t want them out there on those exposed ridges and stuff with lightning,” Beyer said.

The chance of weekend thunderstorms brought the danger of new wildfires erupting. State fire officials announced they were increasing staffing in both Northern and Southern California mountain areas, adding fire crews, engines and bulldozers.

It also created the potential for heavy rains and flooding in the burned areas, authorities said.

In Sacramento, a wind-driven grass fire burned about 250 acres, destroyed a barn and threatened several other structures before crews contained it in about two hours. Officials said despite the high winds, natural barriers north of the Natomas community kept the fire from spreading.

Meanwhile, a 100-acre fire outside the city of San Bernardino was 95 percent contained.

A fire in Alpine County south of Lake Tahoe was 29 percent surrounded after burning about 27 square miles. The contained section was near the town of Markleeville. But much of the fire was in steep terrain, and firefighters were struggling to surround it, officials said.

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