Thunderstorms May Spark New California Wildfires

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Heavy rain and lightning forced firefighters from the ridges where they were battling a cluster of wildfires that have destroyed close to 60 homes and blackened more than 130 square miles of desert and forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said Monday.

Fire officials were hoping the storms would soak the flames rather than produce dry lightning in the San Bernardino Mountains.

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There was a 40 percent chance of rain in the area Monday, and a 60 percent chance of heavy rain, with the possibility of flash flooding later in the week in canyons where fires have stripped away vegetation, said Robert Balfour, a National Weather Service senior forecaster assigned to the fires.

Late Sunday, lightning forced crews off high ground in the middle of the night, then rain soaked the crews on the ground, said Dan Dresselhaus of the California Department of Forestry.

Still, the increased humidity helped firefighters make progress against the largest of a group of fires in the area. That blaze, ignited by lightning July 9, had covered about 96 square miles but was 70 percent contained and some crews were being sent home.

Part of that complex of fires was burning toward thousands of homes in the mountain resort of Big Bear, about eight miles away, but officials said there was no immediate danger. Rainbow, a town of about 100 homes, was considered threatened but no evacuations were called, said Robert Brady of the U.S. Forest Service.

The second major part of the group of fires was moving through low-elevation brush and across rocky San Bernardino National Forest ridges dotted with pine trees killed by drought and a bark beetle infestation. It had grown to more than 34 square miles Monday.

Since being ignited by lightning a week ago, the larger fire, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, has destroyed 58 houses and mobile homes, dozens of outbuildings and scores of vehicles.

At least 11 people have been injured. A body was found in a burned area but the cause of death remained under investigation.

Elsewhere, a fire on the edge of Valentine, Neb., about 300 miles northwest of Omaha near the South Dakota state line, had destroyed about 10 homes and 200 people and a hospital were told to evacuate as a precaution, officials said. Firefighters concentrated on remaining hot spots Monday after spending the night protecting the town of 2,600 people.

Harvey Whitney said he fled his Valentine home with his wife and two daughters Sunday when the flames raced through a nearby canyon and toward his house.

"When we got in the vehicles there were flames dropping down on top of us," Whitney said.

Firefighters in southern and eastern Montana were battling five major fires that charred more than 300 square miles, mostly east of Billings. Officials said Monday that crews were gaining the upper hand after a night of cooler temperatures.

In Wyoming, a wind shift helped firefighters keep a group of blazes from advancing toward Devils Tower National Monument.

The four fires about five miles southwest of Devils Tower had burned about 23 square miles of brush and ponderosa pine but were 75 percent contained Monday morning. Two homes were damaged.

Minnesota authorities let two wildfires burn in the northeastern part of the state. The more serious of the two was expected to burn toward a part of a "blowdown area" where a 1999 wind storm knocked down millions of trees that remain a major fire hazard. No rain is expected there for the next week.