Firefighters gaining edge on California wildfires

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Firefighting aircraft

(AP Image)

(AP) – Firefighters across California were monitoring whether potential thunderstorms and strong winds Thursday could make their work more difficult as they gain ground on several raging wildfires.

In Northern California, crews were getting the upper hand along the northern edge of the Chips Fire in the Plumas National Forest, spokeswoman Alissa Tanner said. But they were worried about gusty winds of up to 25 mph that could spread the fire farther south. The blaze has threatened more than 900 homes and prompted voluntary evacuations.

“We’re gaining an advantage and buttoning up some real hot spots,” Tanner said. “Our major challenge is still south. It’s too steep to get crews in some parts, and it’s also a smoky mess there.” The blaze, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, has burned 67 square miles and remains about 20 percent contained.

It’s among the largest of nearly a dozen major wildfires burning across California that more than 9,000 firefighters are battling, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. A statewide burning ban issued Wednesday also remains in effect.

Elsewhere in Northern California, firefighters continue making significant progress with a Lake County wildfire. Berlant said the blaze, which has burned more than 12 square miles, is 80 percent contained. He expects a full containment by as early as Sunday.

Meanwhile in Southern California, firefighters made progress against wildfires threatening rural homes as a chance of afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains and deserts raised concerns about possible lightning strikes and erratic winds.

More than 100 homes remained under evacuation orders in the San Diego County communities of Ranchita and San Felipe, where two wildfires caused by lightning were creeping slowly through rugged brushlands.

The 8,000-acre Wilson fire was 65 percent contained, and the 7,000-acre Stewart fire was 50 percent surrounded, Berlant said. They were among a cluster of wildfires sparked by lightning that have burned more than 24 square miles. The other blazes were contained.

Some homes were only a half-mile from the fire, but a barrier of barren ground separated them from the flames. Crews on Wednesday burned brush and grass to create a “black line of hundreds of acres,” state fire Capt. Michael Mohler told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Nearly 1,500 firefighters were battling the fire, Berlant said. Crews planned to expand the lines Thursday. Water-dropping aircraft, including Marine helicopters, were supporting firefighting efforts.

“We’re looking at it that if everything stays the same, many state fires could be put out within the next two to four days,” Berlant said. “That’s our hope.”

However, thunderstorms could bring a chance of lightning that would ground aircraft, force some ground crews away from the fire lines and bring a threat of flash flooding, state fire Battalion Chief Mike Smith said.

In neighboring Riverside County, evacuation orders were lifted Wednesday for nearly 50 homes in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. A blaze that burned 4 square miles of land east of Temecula was 60 percent contained. The fire near the community of Aguanga wasn’t spreading. Sparked by lighting Tuesday, it burned three structures, including a home, and injured five people, including three firefighters. One civilian suffered serious burns.

Some residents ignored orders to evacuate. Merle Johnson, 70, watched flames get within 30 feet of his home Wednesday. Firefighters saved his home of 19 years. “My whole life is on top of this hill,” he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. “I’m so tired that I don’t have any emotion left.”

Fire crews battling the flames also found two marijuana plantations in the rocky, rugged area. Battalion Chief Charlie De Hart told the Press-Enterprise that he saw two young men trying to save one crop by shoveling dirt around it.

“Those kids were trying to put the fire out real bad with their shovels, but I got a lot of (the marijuana plants) with the bulldozer,” De Hart said. “You got to give the kids credit; they were out there with their shovels trying to save their weed.”

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