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Storms May Douse Calif. Wildfires

Firefighters battling a wildfire cluster east of Los Angeles were carefully watching thunderstorms that could either bring helpful rain or dangerous lightning and flooding.

The 84,000-acre group of blazes — about 131 square miles — has destroyed nearly 60 homes in nine days and was threatening mountain hamlets.

Storms could bring welcome rain, but also mudslides, wind that could push the fire in unpredictable directions and lightning that could spark more blazes.

"We'll take the rain. We'll take the humidity," said Robert Brady of the U.S. Forest Service. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens on the winds."

The National Weather Service planned to issue a flash flood watch on Tuesday and might continue it through the week, said Mike Lavis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. Light rain fell in some areas Monday, and there was a 70 percent chance of rain Tuesday.

The largest fire in the cluster, about 61,700 acres, ignited by lightning July 9, was 85 percent contained, and crews hoped to fully extinguish it by Tuesday evening. That fire destroyed 58 houses and mobile homes, dozens of outbuildings and scores of vehicles in the 96-square-mile area. One death is believed to be related to the fire.

Fire officials estimated damage at nearly $12 million and firefighting costs at $21.5 million.

CBS News correspondent Manuel Gallegus reports the fire is still several miles and thousands of acres away from the Big Bear Lake resort town. Between the lake and the flames are scattered homes and camp sites.

Lance Swafford, a local firefighter, plans to stay and protect his property. "I've got a fire pump and water tank," he says.

Another 24,210-acre fire, about 38 square miles, was 49 percent contained. Full containment probably was three to five days away, said Tom Wadley of the U.S. Forest Service.

Elsewhere, officials in south-central Montana were optimistic that crews were gaining the upper hand in fighting three blazes estimated at 121,500 acres, or about 190 square miles. The blazes were 60 percent contained, said Dixie Dies, a Forest Service fire information officer.

A wildfire in the northern Minnesota wilderness had exploded to more than 23 square miles in three days, feeding on millions of trees blown down by a storm in 1999.

All those dead trees made it too dangerous to send ground crews in, said Marty Christensen, a U.S. Forest Service official.

"Because the fuel we have is so intense, it's beyond control with hand crews, mechanized crews or aircraft," Christensen said. "So really, the fire is doing what it wants to do."

In west-central Utah, Interstate 15 was reopened about midnight after being closed several hours because of a brush fire that also prompted evacuations in and near the town of Cove Fort. The fire had blackened more than 12 square miles, authorities reported.

Wyoming firefighters worked to contain a group of fires that had burned more than 14,900 acres southwest of Devils Tower National Monument, and plans were being made to begin reassigning some firefighters and equipment to other fires in the region.

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