July 14, 2008

Highway 1 Near Big Sur Reopened

By Joshua Molina, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Jul. 14--Fire, rain and mudslides ravaged parts of the state on Sunday, but firefighters kept the upper hand in battling hundreds of big and small blazes still burning in California.

The Basin Complex fire near Big Sur was 61 percent contained, and the California Highway Patrol opened Highway 1 on Sunday morning after weeks of closure, delighting restaurateurs, store owners and innkeepers.

"We are happy as hell about it," said Herb Evans, the host at Big Sur's Nepenthe restaurant. "It's wonderful."

Ecstatic patrons flooded the famed restaurant on Sunday, he said. "We're three times as busy than we were a couple of days ago," Evans said.

Nepenthe's gift shop also did booming business.

"We are very happy it is open," said Amanda Hepsal, manager of the Phoenix. "A lot of people are coming from Monterey."

Big Sur residents were also allowed to return to their homes on Sunday, and all evacuations near the town were lifted.

The fire has scorched 117,940 acres and cost more than $42 million to fight.

Across the state, violent thunderstorms brought rain bursts that bolstered firefighting efforts, but the downpours also triggered mudslides.

"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.

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 300 yards wide and up to three feet deep, said Carma Roper, spokeswoman for the Inyo County Sheriff's Department.

Residents of more than 50 homes were evacuated and could not return to their properties, she said. Officials were using a nearby school as a shelter.

Across the state, 288 blazes were still burning, most of them in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

Thousands of homes were threatened as recently as Friday in Butte County, north of Sacramento. But firefighters and homeowners got some relief Sunday morning as moist air and calmer winds helped progress in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Thousands of people evacuated from their homes twice during the last month began returning to Paradise for the first time since Tuesday.

About 300 homes remained threatened in and around the town, down from 3,800 homes on Friday, and officials said the fire was 55 percent contained.

Fifty homes were destroyed and one person was apparently killed in the area last week when wind-propelled flames jumped a containment line. The person's charred remains were found Friday in a burned-out home; the cause of death hadn't been determined.

Just to the south, a pair of blazes burning in the foothills west of Lake Tahoe were sending plumes of smoke toward the resort area. The soot was sporadic, but air quality was so bad it prompted the cancellation of the annual Donner Lake Triathlon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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