SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Milder-than-expected weather on Saturday gave fire crews hope that they could rein in a series of Northern California wildfires that have destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.
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Thousands of people stayed away from their homes in the Butte County town of Paradise, but some were allowed to return Saturday to assess damage. At least 74 homes were destroyed and another 20 were damaged in the Paradise area, about 90 miles north of Sacramento.
The priority for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection shifted to assessing damage from the blaze that scorched about 36 square miles, said Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White. The blaze was 45 percent contained after a blustery couple of days, and White said crews expected to have it controlled by Monday.
"With the cooler temperatures and the lack of winds we were able to make the fire burn on our terms," White said Saturday. "It's mellowed out considerably."
Five firefighters suffered minor injuries battling the blaze.
About 9,000 residents had fled the area at the fire's peak Friday. Officials did not know how many had returned home Saturday.
More than a quarter of Paradise residents are over 65. Many had to be moved in buses because they don't drive, while those who were bedridden or in wheelchairs were moved in vans or ambulances.
"We have a significant number of elderly people in wheelchairs at the shelters," Pamela Hospers, Butte County public authority manager, told The Sacramento Bee. "It's very confusing, very frustrating when you have to change and leave everything you know."
One elderly woman died after suffering a heart attack while being evacuated.
In recent days, high temperatures, steady wind and tinder-dry vegetation contributed to wildfires around the state.
In Santa Cruz County, firefighters got a handle on a wildfire that has charred one square mile and burned at least 10 homes in the Bonny Doon community. An evacuation order remained in effect for some areas where firefighters were still trying to stifle a blaze that was 75 percent contained.
The causes of all the California blazes remain under investigation.
In southern New Mexico, fire teams were trying Saturday night to keep a wildfire burning on federal and military land from destroying historic structures in Soledad Canyon including an old sanitarium.
"We've had no lightning. It has to be man-caused," Bureau of Land Management Fire Management Officer Steve Bumgarner said of the 400-acre fire first spotted late Saturday afternoon.
In southeastern Colorado, about 290 firefighters battled a wildfire that had spread over 65 square miles in and around a military training site. Aided by calming wind, the firefighters were able to get the fire 10 percent contained, fire management team spokesman Steve Segin said.
"They've got a lot of work ahead of them," Segin said.
The fire started in the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site but spread to surrounding federal, state and private land after two straight days of strong wind. It was threatening eight ranch homes.
In eastern North Carolina, areas north of a fire around the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge were under the most severe air pollution warning the state has ever issued. The warning includes the cities of Edenton and Elizabeth City.
The fire has charred more than 64 square miles and was only 40 percent contained. Fire spokesman Dean McAlister said firefighters expect it will continue to smolder until the area gets enough rain to soak the peat soil.
A wildfire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles Virginia and North Carolina, prompted a smoke advisory Saturday for much of the Norfolk, Va., area.
The fire, which started Monday, has burned almost 2.25 square miles and wiped out parts of a project to restore Atlantic white cedar trees.