Image: California wildfires rage
David Mcnew  /  Getty Images
A crew prepares to cut a fireline in the early morning hours near Redlands, Calif. on Saturday.
updated 7/16/2006 9:45:26 PM ET 2006-07-17T01:45:26

Fire crews struggled Sunday to quell wildfires still raging across steep, rocky swaths of this desert region, as the harsh terrain slowed efforts to fully contain the blazes that have destroyed 58 homes and scorched more than 120 square miles.

Large wildfires are burning in nine states, most in the West, according to the National Fire Information Center in Boise, Idaho.

Two major fires in the California desert have merged, which fire officials described as a positive development.

“The fact that they burned together makes it easier for us because now we’re only dealing with one perimeter,” said Wayne Barringer, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.

One area of the fire, spanning about 97 square miles, was 60 percent contained, fire officials said. An adjacent fire had grown to more than 23 square miles since merging with the larger fire and was 10 percent contained, officials said.

Difficulties in getting to the remote, rugged pockets of fire were hampering almost 4,000 firefighters trying to contain the blaze. Fire officials were forced to rely on helicopters to drop in suppression teams, rather than using bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

Fire officials estimate damage from the fires at more than $8.4 million and firefighting costs at $10.3 million.

First fatality discovered
On Saturday, searchers found the body of a man who had been missing since the fire burned through historic Pioneertown on Tuesday.

Gerald Guthrie was last heard from when he called a relative from his 10-acre property to say that a wildfire was close and he was preparing to evacuate.

The body of the 57-year-old Guthrie was found by rescuers in a charred area less than a half mile from his home, said Cindy Beavers of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. His death appeared to have been fire-related, sheriff’s Detective James Porter said.

At least 11 people have been injured.

Meanwhile, fire officials braced Sunday for the possibility that thunderstorms could roll over the region, potentially triggering lightning that could start new blazes or rain that could flood the scorched canyonlands.

The National Weather Service said there was about a 30 percent chance of storms in the region. Some rain began to fall in the Big Bear area by early afternoon.

Authorities were advising residents living in a previously designated flood zone to stock up on sand bags.

The fires had burned into the San Bernardino National Forest but were not considered immediate threats to communities at higher elevations in the Big Bear Lake region.

Redlands fire contained
Elsewhere in Southern California, a 500-acre blaze at Redlands was fully contained Sunday after destroying one building. It broke out Friday night and initially threatened 100 homes.

In San Diego County, a 260-acre wildfire about 10 miles east of Julian also was fully contained, said California Department of Forestry spokeswoman Roxanne Provaznik.

Firefighters in southern and eastern Montana were battling five major fires that charred about 294 square miles, mostly east of Billings. About 125 homes were potentially threatened, officials said.

Fires elsewhere
In Wyoming, a wind shift helped firefighters keep a blaze from advancing toward Devils Tower National Monument. Four fires about five miles southwest of Devils Tower have burned about 14,848 acres — about 23 square miles — of mostly brush and ponderosa pine. About 10 percent of the fires were contained. Started by lightning Wednesday, the fire had damaged two homes and threatened 35 others.

In Minnesota, authorities were letting two wildfires burn Sunday in the northeastern part of the state, which is having a second consecutive day of a “red flag warning” for fires. The more serious of the two is expected to burn eastward toward a part of a “blowdown area” where prescribed burns were conducted in 2003 and 2004, making firefighting easier and safer.

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