- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) | More Californians returned Monday to homes they fled when wildfires threatened and a scenic coastal highway was open to traffic again as a slight improvement in weather eased the burden on firefighters.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 288 blazes were still active in the state, most of them in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

Most of those areas did not get any of the weekend rainfall that caused a huge mudslide on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, at a spot that was stripped of vegetation by wildfires last year. The mud closed a highway and forced occupants of 50 homes to leave, but officials said the highway was reopened early Monday.

However, cool, moist air flowed inland from the Pacific early Monday in the area of Big Sur. Residents driven away by flames just days ago were returning to their homes, said Paul Van Gerwen, a battalion chief for the forestry and fire protection department, or CalFire.

State authorities reopened the last stretch of scenic Highway 1 near Big Sur that was closed because of the fires, he said. The California Highway Patrol told drivers to be careful because fire crews were still using the route.

A large cleanup effort was under way in the Big Sur region Monday morning and most restaurants and hotels were back in businesses after nearly three weeks of evacuations.

The Big Sur fire was 61 percent contained after destroying 27 homes. Nearly 2,300 firefighters were still at work on the Big Sur fire, and officials expect to have it fully contained by July 30.

There was also no rain during the weekend in Butte County, north of Sacramento, where thousands of homes were threatened as recently as Friday.

Firefighters and homeowners got some relief Sunday as moist air and calmer wind hampered the flames, and Monday’s temperatures were expected to be in the upper 80s, an improvement over last week’s readings above 100 degrees.

Thousands of people evacuated from their homes twice during the past month had started returning to the Butte County town of Paradise for the first time since July 8.

The fire wasn’t threatening any homes Monday morning, and officials said it was about 70 percent contained after blackening 83 square miles of forest.

“There’s still fire activity and there’s still firefighters doing a lot of work, but the winds have not picked up. The last few days have been very, very good for firefighters - they’ve been able to get a handle on the fire because of that,” said John Welsh, a spokesman for the state fire department in Butte County.

An evacuation order was lifted Sunday for the nearby town of Concow, one ridge away from Paradise, Butte County and fire officials said. Fifty homes were destroyed and one person apparently was killed in the area last week when flames jumped a containment line.

The Butte County blazes were among hundreds of wildfires that have blackened nearly 1,300 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes across California since an enormous lightning storm ignited most of them three weeks ago.

cChristina Hoag and Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.

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