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Break in the weather helps California firefighters battle massive blazes across state

Break in the weather helps California firefighters battle massive blazes across state
Crews work on a fire line in the Cleveland National Forest, near Lake Elsinore. (Ringo Chiu / AFP/Getty Images)

Cooler, calmer weather is helping firefighters get a handle on battling the largest wildfires burning across California and preventing new blazes from getting out of control.

Temperatures are cooling slightly, and humidity is inching upward due to a weakened high-pressure system that forecasters say will persist through Tuesday.

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Though conditions remain far from ideal, they’re an improvement from just a few days ago and a welcome respite from the scorching, high-risk conditions that fueled some of the biggest, most destructive fires in California history.

“We’re fortunate that we don’t have the triple-digit temperatures, we don’t have the single-digit humidity, and we don’t have the howling wind,” said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “It’s still hot, it’s still dry, the winds aren’t light, but it could be much, much worse.”

Officials said that even small improvements, like temperatures dropping into the normal summer range and humidity climbing out of bone-dry territory, will allow quicker progress on 11 major blazes more than 13,000 firefighters are battling across the state.

“Firefighters are going to take full advantage of this opportunity to get the lines reinforced and build more containments,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The favorable turn in the weather also enabled firefighters to quickly contain a new blaze, the Gulch fire in Monterey County, to only 650 acres Saturday, while reaching full containment on the 2,162 acre Nelson fire near Vacaville.

As long as the weather cooperates, fire officials expect to keep ratcheting up their containment levels.

“Because of the weather, we’re in a good place right now,” Tolmachoff said.

To date, the fires have burned more than 695,000 acres, an area more than twice the size of the city of Los Angeles. More than 12,000 residents remain under evacuation orders, fire officials said.

In Southern California, firefighters were making headway on the Holy fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore, raising the fire’s containment to 51% on Sunday. But those efforts could be complicated by the changing weather, which also brought a chance of thunderstorms and wind gusts in Southern California mountain areas Sunday afternoon.

Firefighters also made progress on the Mendocino Complex fire, the largest recorded in California history, which had burned more than 336,000 acres as of Sunday. The blaze, which is made up of the Ranch and River fires, has destroyed 146 homes and is now 70% contained.

In Redding, containment of the 201,680-acre Carr fire increased to 61% on Sunday. That fire has destroyed almost 1,600 structures, including 1,077 homes, and threatened 528 others.

Meanwhile, Yosemite Valley is on schedule to reopen to the public on Tuesday after nearly a three-week closure due to the 96,000-acre Ferguson fire, which was at 83% containment Sunday. The Wawona and Mariposa Grove area of the park is set to open Monday.

The break in the weather may be brief. Temperatures are expected heat up again by the end of the week, though forecasters don’t expect conditions as severely hot and dry as in July, when some of state’s largest fires broke out.

That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. It’s only August, and extreme heat, strong winds and other fire-stoking conditions are likely to return by September and October, historically the most destructive months in California. Officials said they are bracing for more large wildfires through the fall.

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Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.

9:40 p.m.: This article was updated with new fire figures.

5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials.

This article was originally posted at 3:40 p.m.

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