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Crews Taming Western Wildfires, For Now

Crews gained the upper hand on forest fires raging throughout Northern California on Thursday, but lost ground to a blaze threatening a rural community in a wilderness area north of Santa Barbara.

California's largest blaze in the Inyo National Forest was still sending up smoke visible from Highway 395, the main road along the eastern Sierra, but authorities sent the bulk of crews to help elsewhere, said Nancy Upham, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service.

Forest officials re-opened roads, campgrounds and trailheads impacted by the 35,000-acre fire, which was still listed as 80-percent contained since its western flank was smouldering in a rocky area too steep for crews to access, Upham said.

"It's moving very slowly and kind of creeping around in that very, very steep country," Upham said. "There's very little to burn right there."

CBS News correspondent Keith Carls says firefighters are trying to contain the wildfire with a controlled burn and with water from above. "The aerial bombardment of water and retardant continues unabated during daylight hours, pushing the costs of fighting the Zaca fire ever upward into the millions of dollars," Carls reports.

The Inyo fire has cost $3.2 million to fight, injured 11 firefighters and destroyed six homes in the area north of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental U.S.

Remaining crews might see more flare-ups over the weekend sparked by a thunderstorm expected to move through the mountains Saturday, said Chris Stachelski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

A lightning strike Tuesday ignited 600 acres of sagebrush and Jeffrey pine near June Lake, just northwest of the Inyo fire, but that blaze had been put out by Thursday.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Inyo County on Wednesday to free up state resources for fighting the blaze and helping residents of Independence whose water supply was contaminated by the fire.

In northern Santa Barbara County, firefighters were struggling to keep a 12,660-acre blaze in the Los Padres National Forest from spreading across a river, where it could threaten the small town of Tepusquet. The fire was 37 percent contained Thursday, unchanged from the day before.

"It's a very rugged, broken landscape with no good places to construct control lines," said Kathy Good, a Los Padres spokeswoman. "We've got several dozen crews in there building lines as close to the fire's edge as they can safely do."

About 2,000 firefighters have been assigned to the fire, which has cost about $10.2 million to fight, Good said.

The fire, started when sparks from grinding equipment used in repairing a water pipe ignited nearby brush, was burning dry chaparral in the San Rafael Wilderness, prompting authorities to close the wilderness to campers and other visitors, said fire information officer Tony Guzman.

Homes in northern San Diego were briefly threatened after a wildfire in an open canyon tore through about 10 acres of dense brush, said San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque. Air tankers quickly halted the spread of the blaze, which got within 50 yards of some backyards and sent heavy smoke into the air.

Investigators determined the fire was arson and are pursuing several leads but have not yet made any arrests, Luque said Thursday.

A 23,000-acre blaze burning in Plumas National Forest, about 125 miles northeast of Sacramento, was 83 percent contained Thursday and was expected to be out by the week's end, said Jill Poulsen, a spokeswoman for the Antelope Complex Fire Information Officers.

Remaining fire crews were combing the forest on foot looking for still-smouldering trees, after the bulk of the crown fire had been extinguished.

By Thursday afternoon, a 750-acre, lightning-sparked blaze that prompted brief evacuations in the town of Fall River Mills in Shasta County was 80 percent contained and crews were "pretty much packing up and leaving town," said Sheriff's Detective Marc St. Clair.

Elsewhere, thunderstorms bringing cooler temperatures, higher humidity and calm winds have helped firefighters make progress on wildfires burning in Utah.

The Mathis fire, which concerns fire officials because it's burning near coal mines and gas lines, is now 95 percent contained. The fire has burned about 1,300 acres near Price. Crews hope to reach full containment on that fire tonight.

Progress also continued on the state's largest wildfire, the Milford Flat fire in central Utah, which has burned about 363,000 acres — about 567 square miles — but is now listed at 65 percent contained.

In Washington, authorities said they had 100 percent containment on two wildfires near Wenatchee, about 100 miles east of Seattle, and 90 percent containment on a wildfire further north in Okanogan County.

Arizona's largest wildfire — the 22-thousand-acre Black Rock Gulch fire burning in the Arizona Strip near the Utah border — is expected to be 100 percent contained by
tonight.

In Wyoming, a timely rain storm doused a wildfire that had prompted the evacuation of at least 200 people from summer homes and campgrounds near Fremont Lake, a state official said.

"Mother Nature really helped us out last night," State Forester Bill Crapser said Friday.

The storm dropped about an inch of rain over the fire that had consumed about 650 acres of sage, mixed juniper and pine since it was first reported Thursday afternoon.

The fire is separate from the Salt Lick Fire, which is burning on Forest Service lands some 25 miles north of Pinedale. A federal firefighting crew was called in Thursday to help battle the Salt Lick Fire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

The fire was first reported about noon Wednesday and burned about 2,000 acres of heavy timber in the South Gypsum Creek area by Thursday morning.

The Red Cliff Bible Camp located about 3 miles from the fire was evacuated Wednesday, and residents of about 30 private homes in the area were advised to prepare to evacuate, according to the U.S. Forest Service office in Pinedale.

More record heat was forecast in the Northwest, adding to the problems faced by crews battling the fires in Washington. High temperatures up to 107 degrees were forecast for Thursday and Friday in south-central Washington.