Controlled Burn Planned to Fight California Wildfires, Cooler Weather Helps Progress

Cooler weather with higher humidity allowed crews to get a better handle on wildfires across California Tuesday, while a controlled burn was planned to help in the fight.

More than three weeks after 1,781 separate blazes were sparked during a lightning storm, most of them have been extinguished, and some of the biggest fires are nearing containment, officials said.

The complex of fires in Butte County, which have consumed 84 square miles and destroyed dozens of homes, are 75 percent contained. In Mendocino County, the flames are 90 percent contained after scorching about 83 square miles. And the fires moving through remote, rugged parts of Trinity and Shasta Counties are about 55 percent contained.

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"Progress is really being made — we've really turned a corner," said Daniel Berlant, a state fire department spokesman. "But we have to remember this is just July, and our biggest fires are in historically in September and October. We really have to, as a state, not become complacent yet."

New mandatory evacuations and road closures were planned for Tuesday to facilitate a controlled burn meant to clear fuel in the path of a massive wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest.

The blaze, which was 61 percent contained after chewing through 190 square miles of forest, initially threatened the Big Sur area but has since changed course, heading northward and inland.

About 20 houses would be affected under the new round of evacuations, but most of them are uninhabited summer cabins, said Ruby Urueta, spokeswoman with the Monterey County Emergency Operations Center.

"People will see smoke, but it'll be a controlled operation," said Urueta. About 200 homes already have been evacuated in the rural Cachagua community because of the fire danger.

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.

So far this fire season, flames have blackened about 1,300 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes across California. Most of the blazes were sparked by a June 21 lightning storm across the northern part of the state.

The wildfires since June 21 are "the largest single fire event in history for California," said Kelly Houston, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

The previous record was set in the October 2003, when wildfires scorched more than 1,155 square miles, Houston said. State record-keeping on wildfires began in 1936.

The state defines a "fire event" as a grouping of blazes that fall within the same location or time period.

While the October 2003 fires killed 24 people and destroyed more than 3,600 homes, Houston said officials point to acreage when quantifying wildfires to point to the strain on firefighting resources.

Cooler weather around the state also allowed crews to make progress around the fire-ravaged towns of Paradise and Concow. The fires in Butte County, which have burned 83 square miles and destroyed 50 homes, weren't threatening any homes and were about 70 percent contained Monday evening, officials said.

At least one person was found dead after the blaze swept through Concow. An autopsy was conducted Monday, but officials have not released the victim's identity or cause of death.

A fire on the southern extension of the Los Padres forest near Santa Barbara County was 90 percent contained by Monday after charring more than 15 square miles, but 55 homes remained under an evacuation warning. And another blaze in the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield was 70 percent contained after burning about 58 square miles, according to the Forest Service.