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 three feet deep, said Carma Roper, spokeswoman for the Inyo County Sheriff's Department.
The slide oozed near California Highway 395 — reducing it to one open lane — and came within a half mile of the Los Angeles Aqueduct which supplies much of Los Angeles' water. Joe Ramallo, a spokesman for the department, said the aqueduct was not harmed.
Residents of more than 50 homes were evacuated, Roper said. The rain did nothing to help fires, which were not burning in that easternmost corner of California.
And 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, most in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.
There was no rain in Butte County, north of Sacramento, where thousands of homes were threatened as recently as Friday. But moist air and calmer winds Sunday morning helped firefighting efforts in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Thousands of people who were evacuated from their homes twice in the past 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.
An evacuation order was lifted on Sunday for the nearby town of Concow, one ridge away from Paradise and prone to strong winds, Butte County and fire officials said.
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.
The Butte County blazes were among hundreds of wildfires to blacken nearly 1,200 square miles and destroy about 100 homes across California since an enormous lightning storm ignited most of them three weeks ago.
Just to the south, a pair of blazes burning in the foothills west of Lake Tahoe were sending plumes of smoke toward the alpine resort area. The soot was sporadic, but air quality was so bad it prompted the cancellation of the annual Donner Lake Triathlon.
Residents in the tourist town of Big Sur, driven away by flames just days ago, were returning to their homes, said Paul Van Gerwen, a CalFire battalion chief stationed in the area.
"They're in a cleanup period," Van Gerwen said. "Many businesses and homeowners are getting the (fire-retardant) gels off their structures, cleaning up roadways, driveways, the debris that falls from trees. They're trying to get over the emotional state of the evacuation."
On Sunday morning, state authorities reopened the last piece of scenic Highway 1 near Big Sur that had been closed because of the fires, he said.
The fire was 61 percent contained after destroying 26 homes, and all evacuations near the town of Big Sur were lifted, he said.
Firefighters continued to make progress against a fire that has raged through the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. As of Sunday morning, fire crews had contained 85 percent of the fire and expected to complete the containment lines on Wednesday, U.S. Forest Service spokesman David Daniels said. Fifty-five homes remained under evacuation warning.
In far Northern California, the Trinity County Sheriff's Department ordered evacuations in sparsely populated communities in the mountains west of Redding.
Isolated thunderstorms were expected across parts of Southern California and flash flood watches were in effect Sunday for the Antelope Valley and the mountains of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, said Steven Van Horn, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
The moisture from the south was starting to move up the state and isolated storms were expected over the mountains farther to the north.
But Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said more than patchy rain was needed to douse California's unprecedented early fire season, especially in the north.
In Washington, 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.