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More than 800 wildfires burning in California

Wildfires raged in California on Tuesday, as the state marked the one-year anniversary of a massive blaze southwest of Lake Tahoe that destroyed 254 homes.
Image: Satellite image of California wildfires
A satellite image provided by NASA on Monday shows the numerous wildfires currently burning in California.Ho / Reuters
/ Source: news services

Wildfires raged in California on Tuesday, as the state marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating Angora fire, a massive blaze southwest of Lake Tahoe that destroyed 254 homes and charred 3,100 acres.

An "unprecedented" lightning storm Friday was the source of more than 800 wildfires, from Mendocino County south to the Big Sur area in Monterey County.

At least 200 of the fires remained unattended Tuesday as the state's limited resources were directed at the most immediate threats.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared states of emergency in Monterey and Trinity counties and asked for help and equipment from neighboring states. Thousands of firefighters have been battling the blazes on the ground and from the air.

While crews were reporting progress against many of the blazes, they were told to expect the situation to deteriorate later in the week.  NBC Weatherplus meteorologist Jackie Meretsky said the forecast shows another series Thursday of so-called dry thunderstorms, the phenomenon that led to the lightning strikes over the weekend.

The dry thunderstorms, in which rain evaporates before it hits the ground but is still accompanied by lightning, could generate as many as 100 lightning strikes Thursday, Meretsky said.

Other states pitch in
Assistance from Nevada and Oregon, mostly firefighting aircraft, arrived Monday after being requested over the weekend. Schwarzenegger said he had enlisted the help "because you can never prepare for 500 or 700 or 800 fires all at the same time."

Oregon officials say more than 2,400 firefighters have been sent to Northern California. The thousands of lightning strikes that peppered California with fires also hit Oregon — but with far different results, an official said. Oregon had a cold, wet winter, so forests there are less combustible.

One of the fires started by weekend thunderstorms had already blackened more than 10,000 acres — nearly 16 square miles — in a rural area of Lake County, about 120 miles north of San Francisco. No homes had been destroyed, but officials said voluntary evacuations were in place for residents of 36 homes.

Schwarzenegger said he was told late Sunday evening that the state had 520 fires, and he found it "quite shocking" that by Monday morning the number had risen above 700.

Moments later, a top state fire official standing at Schwarzenegger's side offered a grim update: The figure was actually 842 fires, said Del Walters, assistant regional chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. All but a couple were in the northern part of the state.

"This is an unprecedented lightning storm in California, that it lasted as long as it did, 5,000 to 6,000 lightning strikes," Walters said. "We are finding fires all the time."

State ‘hammered’ by lightning storm
Part of the reason for the swelling number of wildfires was that local and state officials were still counting after the fierce thunderstorm Friday night that touched off the blazes.

"We didn't get real lucky with this lighting storm," Walters said. "It wasn't predicted — which often happens with these storms that come in off the Pacific, there's no history of the weather as it approaches the shore — and so we got hammered."

A blaze that started in Napa County moved into Solano County as it burned over more than 6 square miles. It was 60 percent contained, said Kevin Colburn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

No homes have been destroyed, and voluntary evacuations about 40 miles southwest of Sacramento have been lifted.

A blaze that had charred nearly 6 square miles in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest about 160 miles north of Sacramento was a threat to about 1,200 homes and several youth camps.

In Mendocino County alone there were 110 fires, with just 17 contained.

Along the coast in the Los Padres National Forest, a 2,000-acre wildfire burning south of Big Sur since Saturday forced the evacuations of 75 homes and businesses, destroyed one house and threatened hundreds of others.

In Monterey County, a wildfire west of King City in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest was 66 percent contained and had burned about 90 square miles. That fire led to an emergency airlift Sunday of eight endangered California condors. Coast Guard helicopters carried the seven juveniles and one adult bird from a wildlife center to the Monterey Airport.

Also in Monterey County, a fire near the coast south of Big Sur was only 3 percent contained. It had consumed about 11 square miles acres since it was first reported Monday.

Officials evacuated eight homes in the Ponderosa Basin, near Fresno, as flames from the Oliver fire started moving toward them Tuesday morning.  Dozens of other residents were put on 15-minute evacuation preparation notice.

Smoke-filled air a hazard
The Sacramento region remained under a blanket of smoke Tuesday, leading health officials to urge the public to stay indoors as much as possible. 

Emergency responders said they had seen a rise in the severity of cases involving people with breathing-related illnesses.

"We've got people who normally have asthma; they're treating it on their own, and they're finding that the medications they have aren't working," said Sally Davis, a dispatch supervisor.  "And so we're finding that people are a little more critical when we get there than they normally would have been."

Sacramento officials issued an advisory to avoid outdoor activiites.  Officials urged local residents to windows closed and to stay indoors.

Wildfires in neighboring states
The lightning strikes touched off nearly 100 fires in neighboring Nevada.  There was no estimate for containment or control of any of them.

One of the worst was in the Little Valley near Fall River Mills, where two large fires merged Monday night, burning 3,000 acres.  The Lassen County Sheriff's Department advised Little Valley residents to be alert for evacuation.

About 50 fires were burning in Plumas National Forest near Feather River Canyon.  Together, they had burned about 3,300 acres by Tuesday morning.

In southern Arizona, two new human-caused wildfires were burning Monday but not threatening homes. A 700-acre fire that had been sparked by lightning in the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson was fully contained.

In New Mexico, crews dropped 11,500 incendiary balls to ignite unburned vegetation and halt a blaze that has charred more than 49,000 acres, largely on grazing allotments on federal land.

Lightning started that fire Tuesday in the Lincoln National Forest about 20 miles southwest of Hope. It was not threatening any structures.

"The ranchers have already moved a lot of the cattle that were out there," U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Deanna Younger said. The grazing areas "will be the main loss," she said.

Bus carrying inmate firefighters overturns
A bus carrying an inmate firefighting crew overturned in a remote part of southwest Riverside County, injuring 16 people, two of them critically.

Authorities say the bus blew a tire and rolled over near state Route 371 on Monday night, about 10 miles east of Temecula.

Riverside County Fire Department spokeswoman Jody Hagemann says four people were hospitalized, two with critical injuries and two moderately injured. Twelve people with minor injuries were treated at the scene.

The bus was carrying a crew from the Oak Glen Fire Camp in Yucaipa.

Earlier Monday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had been fighting a 20-acre wildfire near the crash site. It was unclear Tuesday morning whether the crew on the bus had been at that fire.