SAN JOSE, Calif. – Fire crews battling nearly 300 blazes burning across California are getting help from a pilotless plane that transmits real-time images of hot spots and flare-ups to commanders in the field.
The unmanned drone developed by NASA scientists discovered a hot flare-up in a canyon near the town of Paradise, prompting fire officials to issue evacuation orders for 10,000 people in Butte County last week. Thick smoke and heat had prevented other aircraft from patrolling the area.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday toured the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, where he credited the NASA technology with saving lives and pushed an initiative to charge homeowners a fee to pay for emergency response equipment.
"This unmanned plane is a true life-saver. But even though we get all this terrific help, California needs more resources. There's no two ways about it," the governor said.
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 current complex of fires is "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 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.
A massive wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest continued spreading northward and eastward Monday, relieving the danger to the storied coastal town of Big Sur but forcing residents of another community to stay away from their homes for a third day.
Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders, issued Saturday morning, remained in place for more than 200 homes in the rural Cachagua community northeast of Big Sur. The blaze, which already has charred 188 square miles and destroyed 27 homes, was about 1 1/2 miles from the residential area, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighters had a strong fire line there that they expected to hold, keeping the flames from reaching the more populated Carmel Valley, said Tacy Skinner, a Forest Service spokeswoman.
On the southwest border of the blaze, which was 61 percent contained, firefighters were in cleanup mode Monday. The Pacific Coast Highway fully reopened ahead of schedule a day earlier, and residents and business owners in Big Sur were settling back in after three weeks of evacuations.
Cooler weather around the state allowed officials to lift evacuation orders in 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.
"Things still seem to be looking pretty good," said Kevin Colburn, a state fire department spokesman in Butte County, adding that expected triple-digit temperatures never materialized Monday. Highs were in the mid-90s, helping the fight.
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. To make matters worse, the town of Lake Isabella, near the southern end of the Sequoia forest, was tacking a mudslide
Jim Bagnell, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said Monday night that a mix of ash and mud slid into Lake Isabella and covered one of the town's main streets. He said he is not sure what else was damaged.
Meanwhile, in Inyo County, about 90 miles east of Fresno, crews were working Monday to clear mud and debris from Highway 395 in the town of Independence, said Carma Roper, spokeswoman for the sheriff's department.
A huge mudslide, caused by severe thunderstorms on Saturday over an area ravaged by fire last year, was still blocking all but one lane of the road, and the California Highway Patrol was escorting vehicles through the blocked area, she said.
The mud avalanche damaged about 55 homes, and about 25 of them are uninhabitable because mud had swallowed the structures, Roper said. "There aren't really houses to go back to," she said. "It's not a livable area."
In Washington state, the biggest fire to strike the southern Cascade Range in decades continued to grow Monday, as weather forecasters warned of hazardous fire conditions for most of the east side of the state.
The fire had burned about 9 square miles, or more than 6,000 acres, in south-central Washington near Mount Adams, the state's second-highest peak. The fire was burning in timber, some beetle-killed, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and on the Yakama Indian Reservation. No homes were threatened.