- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) | Many firefighters and homeowners were able to take a collective breath Sunday morning as another town appeared to have been spared from yet another wildfire in the unprecedented California fire season.

Heavy rain was expected in parts of the state, but while that would be helpful to fighting fire, it could cause flash floods in burned-out areas all over the state, authorities said.

Moist air and calmer wind helped firefighters make progress Saturday on a deadly wildfire in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and thousands of people evacuated from their homes twice during 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.

“For the first time, we’ve really turned the corner,” said Kim Sone, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. “There’s more resources staffing the fire, and the weather has changed. We’re getting good relative humidity and the winds are subsiding.”

However, flames still bore down on homes across the state.

An evacuation order remained in effect for the nearby town of Concow, which was not nearly as fortunate as some have been. Fifty homes were destroyed and one person was apparently killed 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 hasn’t been determined.

The Butte County blaze is one of hundreds of wildfires that have blackened nearly 1,200 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes across California since a huge lightning storm ignited most of them three weeks ago.

Flash-flood watches were issued Sunday for much of southern and central California, including many fire-scarred areas that are ripe for mudslides.

The National Weather Service said a strong monsoonal weather pattern was bringing large amounts of moisture to the mountains and deserts in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Kern and Tulare counties.

Late Saturday, one flash flood struck an area near Lake Isabella in Kern County where a wildfire had charred more than 54 square miles. As a thunderstorm caused a creek to overflow and washed out a road, some residents heeded the county fire department’s advice to take to higher ground, said Capt. Benny Wolford.

There were no immediate reports of injuries. The storm could help firefighters in their quest to fully contain the fire, said Capt. Wolford.

Officials say more fires have been burning at one time this year than during any other period in recorded California history.

“This is truly a national disaster. The magnitude is incredible,” said Daniel Berlant, a state fire agency spokesman.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jason Kirchner said firefighters have spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the blazes, and that doesn’t include the economic cost to businesses, tourism and agriculture, or the impact on air and water quality.

Officials warn that the state could suffer a lot more because fire danger is typically highest in Southern California in the fall, when hot, dry wind could scour hillsides desiccated by a two-year drought.

cAssociated Press writers Don Thompson and Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.

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