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Heavy Rains Complicate Efforts in California

July 14, 2008

The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO

Violent thunderstorms brought rain bursts that modestly helped firefighting efforts Sunday, but the downpours also triggered mudslides that complicated California’s unfolding wildfire disaster.

“If it isn’t fire, it’s flood. If it isn’t fire or flood, it’s the mud,” said Christina Lilienthal, an interagency fire spokeswoman. A “horrendous” amount of precipitation in the Sequoia National Forest dampened the ground, but also caused a creek to flood, cutting off a firefighting crew’s escape route when a road washed out, she said.

The firefighters didn’t need the escape route, because fires burning nearby did not threaten them. They moved to higher ground as a precaution against the rising waters, Lilienthal said.

But the 59 firefighters could not reach their camp Saturday evening, stranding them in the field overnight, Lilienthal said. They reopened the road Sunday afternoon, amid new threats of erratic winds and falling trees weakened by the soft ground.

A huge mudslide in an area that was devastated by wildfires last year damaged about 50 homes and caused the temporary closure of a main road in the California town of Independence on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Severe thunderstorms Saturday set off the mudslide, which was 300 yards wide and up to 3 feet deep, said Carma Roper, spokeswoman for the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department. The mud oozed across California Highway 395, prompting a detour, and some mud reached the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Residents of more than 50 homes were evacuated, she said. The rain did nothing to help fires, which were not burning in that easternmost corner of California.

No rain fell on most of the other California fires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 288 blazes were still burning around the state .

Meanwhile, in Washington state, 200 residents from Spokane Valley who were forced to evacuate Friday were allowed to return to their homes. Firefighters were mopping up the fire that burned 1.5 square miles, and reported it 60 percent contained.

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