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Counties escape major fire threats

Thousands of acres of timber and brush continue to burn in California, but so far, Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa counties have had no major incidents.

Despite thunderstorms and lightning strikes in upper elevations, only a handful of acres have burned in those three counties, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Other parts of the state have been hit hard.

Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency in Inyo County on Wednesday as firefighters got some help from a storm system that brought higher humidity throughout the state.

The fire on the eastern side of the Sierra has charred 35,000 acres since Friday and caused the contamination of the primary water supply for the tiny town of Independence.

The blazes in the Inyo National Forest, sparked by lightning Friday, still rank as the state's largest fire complex. But flames were mostly contained despite 30to 40-mph winds and lightning strikes that caused some flare-ups Tuesday night, authorities said. "We've put the cow back in the barn and shut the door," said fire information officer Jim Wilkins.

The fire injured 11 firefighters and destroyed six homes in an area north of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States.

Water supplies were compromised in Independence, which had nearly 600 residents in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. The town is in a remote, desolate valley between Death Valley and Kings Canyon national parks.

In the higher elevations of Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa counties, lightning sparked about seven small vegetation fires early Wednesday, but Cal Fire officials reported none burned more than half an acre.

The fires were in remote areas, and no injuries or structure damage was reported.

The biggest fire burned near Murphys Grade Road, a few miles southwest of Murphys, said Capt. Laura Blake of Cal Fire's Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit.

23,000-acre blaze 50 percent contained

Blake said fire officials were able to stomp out those fires within a few hours, since they moved slowly through heavy vegetation. She said some air moisture and light rain aided the firefighters, as well.

The thunderstorm threat to the foothills and the Sierra Nevada was gone by Wednesday afternoon, but a National Weather Service forecaster said there's a slight chance that the threat could return this afternoon.

That remote chance of isolated thunderstorms is focused on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, said Jim Mathews, a weather service forecaster.

Meanwhile, crews made progress on a nearly 23,000-acre blaze about 125 miles northeast of Sacramento in the Plumas National Forest. The blaze was more than 50 percent contained Wednesday, and firefighters were being reassigned to smaller fires nearby that were caused by lightning.

"We had a great day on Tuesday," said Lorraine Harwood, a fire information officer.

Rain forecast for the region had created fears of mudslides, but Harwood said hardly any rain fell.

A smaller fire in far Northern California prompted mandatory evacuations of 30 to 50 homes as flames approached the town of Fall River Mills, near the Lassen National Forest, said Shasta County Sheriff's Detective Marc St. Clair.

The fire had burned roughly 500 acres and was about 70 percent contained by Wednesday afternoon, said Ryan Harvey of the U.S.Forest Service. No damage to structures or injuries had been reported, and several smaller, lightning-caused fires in the area also were under control.

The cause of the Shasta County blaze has not been determined.

Lightning caused a wildfire near June Lake, east of Yosemite National Park in Mono County, that scorched about 600 acres of sagebrush and Jeffrey pine. It didn't threaten communities or structures, Forest Service spokeswoman Nancy Upham said.

Use of firefighting equipment forced authorities to close several miles of Highway 395, the main route along the eastern Sierra. A detour kept traffic flowing, but officials had no estimate of when the highway would be reopened, Upham said.

Bee staff writer RosalioAhumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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