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Cool air, aggressive crews beat back Calif. fires

Cool, moist weather and steady attacks by firefighters have brought the number of wildfires still burning in Northern California dramatically down.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cool, moist weather and steady attacks by firefighters have brought the number of wildfires still burning in Northern California dramatically down.

A month after lightning ignited firestorms across Northern California, driving thousands of people from their homes, just 33 fires were still burning, down from more than 2,000.

The June 21 lightning storm ignited what officials have called the largest fire event in California history. Nearly 1,480 square miles have been scorched across the state.

Authorities said most of California's remaining blazes are on remote federal forest lands and pose little threat to homes.

The progress has allowed officials to pull back weary fire personnel, which numbered about 25,000 at the peak of the blazes. Now that number is down to 15,600 and is expected to drop dramatically by week's end, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Some Californians' lungs also got a break as pollution readings returned to normal, but smoke continued to be a health threat in counties where fires still burned.

The California Air Resources Board issued a health warning late Monday for Northern California.

Fires spewed heavy smoke over Trinity and Humboldt counties, setting off dangerous readings at pollution sensors in Mendocino County, the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada foothill communities.

Junction City in rural Trinity County was to be under evacuation orders because of the fires at least until Tuesday, said Lynn Ward, spokeswoman for the county's Office of Emergency Services.

The wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that was threatening the town of 800 residents was 56 percent contained after charring 89 square miles.

"They're gaining ground on it, and with the weather cooperating, they're able to do burnout operations within the fire to remove hazardous fuels," said Tom McCampbell, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

A handful of residents also were still affected by evacuation orders in Shasta, Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties.

Near the coast, thick fog and backfires helped crews in their battle against a wildfire that previously had threatened thousands of homes in the Los Padres National Forest around Big Sur. That blaze was 70 percent contained after burning about 209 square miles and 27 homes.

Officials say this monthlong fire event wasn't expected to be the only one this year, as the state continues to be plagued with drought. September and October typically bring the most devastating blazes.

"We often see little thunderstorm cells that come in in the summertime. The precipitation it brings is not enough to get into the vegetation, the grasses, to really have a long-term impact on the fire behavior or potential," Berlant said. "It may decrease it for that day or another couple days, but it only takes a few days of dry conditions to bring that potential back again."