SAN FRANCISCO More Californians returned Monday to homes they fled when wildfires threatened and a scenic coastal highway was open to traffic again as a slight improvement in weather eased the burden on firefighters.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 288 blazes were still active around the state, most of them in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.
Most of those areas did not get any of the weekend rainfall that caused a huge mudslide on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, at a spot that was stripped of vegetation by wildfires last year. The mud closed a highway and forced occupants of 50 homes to leave, but state officials said the highway was reopened early Monday.
However, cool, moist air flowed inland from the Pacific early Monday in the area of Big Sur. Residents driven away by flames just days ago were returning to their homes, said Paul Van Gerwen, a battalion chief for the forestry and fire protection department, or CalFire.
And state authorities had reopened the last piece of scenic Highway 1 near Big Sur that had been closed because of the fires, he said. The California Highway Patrol was urging drivers to be careful because fire crews were still using the highway.
A large cleanup effort was underway in the Big Sur region Monday morning and most restaurants and hotels were back in businesses.
The Big Sur fire was 61 percent contained after destroying 27 homes. Nearly 2,300 firefighters were still at work on the Big Sur fire, and officials expect to have it fully contained by July 30.
There was also no rain during the weekend in Butte County, north of Sacramento, where thousands of homes were threatened as recently as Friday.
Still, firefighters and homeowners got some relief Sunday as moist air and calmer wind helped progress against the flames, and Monday's temperatures were expected to be in the upper 80s, an improvement over last week's readings above 100 degrees.
Thousands of people evacuated from their homes twice during the last month had started returning to the Butte County town of Paradise for the first time since July 8. About 300 homes remained threatened in and around the town Monday, down from 3,800 homes on Friday, and officials said the fire was 55 percent contained.
An evacuation order was lifted Sunday for the nearby town of Concow, one ridge away from Paradise, Butte County and fire officials said.
Fifty homes were destroyed and one person was apparently killed in the area last week when flames jumped a containment line.
The Butte County blazes were among hundreds of wildfires that have blackened nearly 1,300 square miles and destroyed 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 in the Sierra Nevada foothills west of Lake Tahoe were sending plumes of smoke toward the alpine resort area. Air quality was so bad it prompted the cancellation of the annual Donner Lake Triathlon.
Southeast of the Tahoe region, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra, severe thunderstorms Saturday set off a mudslide 300 yards wide and up to 3 feet deep, said Carma Roper, spokeswoman for the Inyo County Sheriff's Department.
The mud oozed across California Highway 395, and residents of more than 50 homes were evacuated. A nearby school was opened as a shelter.
Fires were not active in that section of California, but the mudslide struck an area where wildfires last year damaged about 50 homes.
In Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County, firefighters continued to make headway against a blaze in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Crews had contained 90 percent of the fire and expect to complete the containment lines on Wednesday, U.S. Forest Service spokesman David Daniels said.
Fifty-five homes remained under evacuation warning. "We're starting to get close," Daniels said.
In Washington state, 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.Elsewhere in eastern Washington, a blaze driven by gusty wind raced across 31 square miles of brush and grass southeast of Soap Lake, said Gary Garnant, public information officer for the Grant County Department of Emergency Management. Several outbuildings were destroyed and firefighters were working to protect 10 rural homes that were threatened, Garnant said.
Associated Press writers Christina Hoag and Thomas Watkins contributed to this report from Los Angeles.