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California firefighters turn corner on blaze

A sign thanks firefighters battling the Butte Lightening Complex fire at a staging area at Yankee Hill, Calif., on Saturday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A sign thanks firefighters battling the Butte Lightening Complex fire at a staging area at Yankee Hill, Calif., on Saturday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

PARADISE, Calif. – Moist air and calmer winds helped firefighters make progress Saturday on a deadly wildfire in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the latest hot spot in an unprecedented fire season that has made much of California a disaster area.

Thousands of people evacuated from their homes twice during the last 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, while 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.”

An evacuation order remained in effect for the nearby town of Concow, where 50 homes were razed and one person was apparently killed this week after wind-propelled flames jumped a containment line. The person’s charred remains were found Friday in a burned-out home.

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 lightning storm ignited most of them three weeks ago.

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

About 20,000 firefighters from 41 states and Puerto Rico were fighting more than 320 active fires around the state, and more were on the way from Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ordered 2,400 National Guard troops to join the fire crews on the ground for the first time in more than 30 years.

In Paradise, where a separate blaze destroyed more than 70 homes last month, residents returning Saturday found a town that didn’t live up to its name.

Fine ash sifted from the sky, coating homes and vehicles with a soft gray shroud. Eye-stinging smoke from the collection of fires that have blackened nearly 78 square miles choked the air. Many returning residents wore dust masks.

Elsewhere in California, state transportation officials said they expect to reopen coastal Highway 1 this morning, three weeks after it was closed as a massive wildfire swept through the tourist town of Big Sur.


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