Dozens of lightning-triggered wildfires on Sunday devoured thousands more acres of forest land across the state and in Yosemite National Park, which officials announced would remain closed at least until Thursday.
The largest of three Yosemite blazes briefly threatened a campground, gas station and general store at Crane Flat, near Arch Rock, fire officials said. The A-Rock fire, which already has destroyed 66 structures in the village of Foresta and claimed timberlands valued at $11.4 million, jumped into the adjacent Stanislaus National Forest and charred 3,000 acres of old-growth spotted owl habitat. At 7 p.m., The A-Rock fire was nearly 40% contained but still considered dangerous.
By sundown, weather conditions offered fire officials some hope for improvement. Winds were down and humidity was up, but at least two fires were expected to burn for several more days.
"All in all, things are going very well," said John Mincks, a U.S. Forest Service information officer.
Meanwhile, about 20,000 firefighters battled hundreds of other fires in six Western states, including Alaska. Those blazes burned more than 856,000 acres by late Sunday, said Reed Jarvis, a spokesman for the National Fire Information Center in Boise, Ida.
"We're in a serious situation because of four-year drought conditions and lightning activity," Jarvis said. "Unless we see cooler temperatures and higher humidities, fires . . . will continue to expand in size."
In addition to 14 major blazes burning in California, Jarvis said, there were 30 major fires burning in Utah, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
Four Army battalions--about 2,000 soldiers--from Ft. Lewis, Wash., and Ft. Carson, Colo., will move into Oregon and Northern California today and Tuesday to help battle the blazes, said Ken Strauss, fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise.
In California alone, an estimated 11,700 firefighters in the last week have fought 1,300 fires, which have consumed more than 200,000 acres. At least 127 structures have been lost since Aug. 3.
"Things are looking pretty bad in the state," said Norm Benson, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry. "We've got very little containment on a lot of fires burning."
The state's largest fire was in Tehama County, about 200 miles north of Yosemite, where two fires headed toward each other, one of them threatening the towns of Manton and Lymon Springs near the Lassen National Forest, Strauss said. The larger of the Tehama County blazes, known as the Campbell fire, burned 112,000 acres of tree- and brush-covered ranchlands and 42 structures, including two homes and 13 mobile homes by Sunday evening. At least 150,000 acres were expected to be consumed when the two fires converged, Strauss said.
Near Lake Isabella at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, firefighters battling a 24,100-acre fire were bedeviled by high winds throughout the weekend. Thirty-five firefighters have been injured in that blaze, dubbed the Stormy Fire, which continued to threaten the communities of Kernville and Alta Sierra on Sunday.
Of particular concern to fire officials were reports of a thunderstorm system brewing in Mexico that could bring a new round of lighting strikes and high winds to the Sierra Nevada and northwestern United States by Wednesday.
Between Aug. 3 and Saturday, electronic detection equipment already had counted 28,893 lightning strikes in California.
In Yosemite, three fires that have scorched more than 16,000 acres about 10 miles west of Yosemite Valley continued to burn out of control. By Sunday, the two largest of the blazes--the A-Rock and Steamboat fires--were only 40% and 30% contained, respectively, fire officials said.
The third fire, a smaller, 500-acre blaze on the northwestern edge of the park near the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, took an ominous turn Sunday afternoon in the direction of Aspen Valley, and about a dozen families were evacuated as a precautionary measure, officials said.
The larger fires, about 3 miles apart, threatened to engulf a stand of 3,000-year-old Sequoias on the western boundary of the park called the Merced Grove. By late Sunday, flames were only 2 miles from the grove.
Firefighters and Yosemite park employees have cleared a fire line around the grove and doused the mammoth tree trunks with biodegradable fire retardant chemicals. In addition, fire resistant blankets were stapled over the wood shingle roof of a nearby historic log cabin built in the 1930s.
All entrances to the park on the west and south are closed at least until Thursday morning, park officials said.
Campers who already hold reservations will be allowed into Tuolumne Meadows through the Tioga Pass entrance on the east, officials said, but campers without reservations are barred from the area. Tuolumne Meadows is 20 to 30 miles from the fires.
Yosemite Valley, which attracts as many as 25,000 visitors on summer weekends, has been declared off limits to tourists and is covered by a gray, smoky haze, but is untouched by the fires.
Under a blanket of smoke obscuring its famed granite monoliths and waterfalls, two church services were held Sunday in what has become a virtual ghost town.
One was a Catholic Mass celebrated by about 20 weary firefighters and residents who prayed for an end to the disaster.
"Let us pray for the men who are fighting fires all around us," Father Dennis Alvarez told the gathering in an auditorium adjacent to the room where fire officials were devising strategies for knocking down the blazes. "Let us pray for each other in this struggle."
Sahagun reported from Los Angeles and Ramos from Yosemite National Park. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Harold Maass and Joanna M. Miller from Yosemite and Tracy Wood in Los Angeles.