Mudslides Complicate Battle for California Firefighters

Mudslides on fire-scarred land in the eastern Sierra Nevada forced people from their homes while milder weather in Northern California helped firefighters get a leg up on blazes throughout the state, and allowed evacuated Butte County residents to return home.

A huge mudslide in an area that was devastated by wildfires last year damaged about 50 homes and caused the temporary closure of a main road in the California town of Independence on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Severe thunderstorms Saturday set off the mudslide 300 yards wide and up to three feet deep, said Carma Roper, spokeswoman for the Inyo County Sheriff's Department.

The mud oozed across California Highway 395, prompting a detour, and some mud came within a half mile of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which supplies much of Los Angeles' water.

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A large cleanup effort continued Monday morning while the California Highway Patrol escorted vehicles along the single, open lane on the affected mile-and-a-half stretch of highway.

Residents of more than 50 homes were evacuated and could not return to their properties, she said. Officials were using a nearby school as a shelter. The rain did nothing to help fires, which were not burning in that easternmost corner of California.

And no rain fell on most of the other California fires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 288 blazes were still burning around the state, most of them in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

There was no precipitation in Butte County, north of Sacramento, where thousands of homes were threatened as recently as Friday. But firefighters and homeowners got some relief Sunday as moist air and calmer winds helped progress. 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, and officials said the fire was 55 percent contained.

An evacuation order was lifted on Sunday for the nearby town of Concow, one ridge away from Paradise and prone to strong winds, Butte County and fire officials said.

Fifty homes were destroyed and one person was apparently killed in the area 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 hadn't been determined.

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

Just to the south, a pair of blazes burning in the foothills west of Lake Tahoe were sending plumes of smoke toward the alpine resort area. The soot was sporadic, but air quality was so bad it prompted the cancellation of the annual Donner Lake Triathlon.

Residents in the tourist town of Big Sur, driven away by flames just days ago, were returning to their homes, said Paul Van Gerwen, a CalFire battalion chief stationed in the area.

On Sunday morning, state authorities reopened the last piece of scenic Highway 1 near Big Sur that had been closed because of the fires, he said.

The fire was 61 percent contained after destroying 27 homes, and all evacuations near the town of Big Sur were lifted, he said.

At the so-called Gap fire in Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County, firefighters continued to make headway against a blaze that has raged through the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Fire crews had contained 90 percent of the fire and expect to complete the containment lines on Wednesday, U.S. Forest Service spokesman David Daniels said.

Fifty-five homes remained under evacuation warning. "We're starting to get close," he said.