From: Ryan Pearson, Associated Press
Published October 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Rain Washes Away Fire Danger in Southern California's National Forests

LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of thousands of acres in three Southern California national forests, closed to visitors for weeks for fear of forest fires, were scheduled to reopen Wednesday following heavy rains in the area.

In northern California, unusually early winter storms knocked out power to at least 144,000 customers and forced the evacuation of 200 residents along the South Fork of the American River, many in areas where wildfires burned as recently as a week ago.

The vast stretches of the Angeles, Cleveland, and San Bernardino national forests had been closed to prevent people from sparking wildfires.

Some roads will remain closed, and officials warned that even a week's worth of rain would not be not enough to eliminate the possibility of a repeat of last fall's devastating firestorms.

"Our fire season is by no means over," said Stanton Florea, spokesman for the Angeles National Forest, where about 90 percent of land was put off-limits Sept. 27. "But things are definitely looking better."

Nearly all the forest's 680,000 acres — an area roughly the size of Rhode Island — was to reopen Wednesday. Florea said 13 forest weather stations had recorded an average of 1.4 inches of rain since Saturday night, and more was expected.

The worst of the region's fire season comes when hot, dry Santa Ana winds race over mountains and through canyons in late October and November. Such winds propelled last fall's fast-moving firestorms, which burned across more than 750,000 acres, destroying 3,650 homes and killing 24 people.

In the San Bernardino forest, low-lying areas covering tens of thousands of acres were closed in July. Residents who live in the area braced for possible floods or mudslides down denuded hills, similar to those that killed 16 people last Christmas Day.

About 20 percent of the 467,000-acre Cleveland National Forest east of San Diego was closed last month. That section, which did not burn in last fall's firestorms, was to reopen Wednesday, forest spokeswoman Joan Wynn said.

Officials said the storm was headed toward Southern California, where up to 6 inches of rain were expected in some areas. Emergency crews were bracing for potential flooding and mud and rock slides, particularly in areas ravaged by last October's disastrous wildfires.

"If it comes down slowly and easy, it's a blessing," said Marvin McMain as he filled sandbags to protect his home in the San Bernardino Mountains. "If we get a deluge all at once, it's a curse."

Source: Associated Press

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