California Firefighters get Help from NASA Drone

Fire crews battling nearly 300 blazes burning across California are getting help from a pilotless plane that transmits real-time images of hot spots and flare-ups to commanders in the field.

The unmanned drone developed by NASA scientists discovered a hot flare-up in a canyon near the town of Paradise, prompting fire officials to issue evacuation orders for 10,000 people in Butte County, Calif. last week. Thick smoke and heat had prevented other aircraft from patrolling the area.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, where he credited the NASA technology with saving lives and pushed an initiative to charge homeowners a fee to pay for emergency response equipment.

“This unmanned plane is a true life-saver. But even though we get all this terrific help, California needs more resources, there’s no two ways about it,” the governor said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 288 blazes were still burning around the state, most of them in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

So far this fire season, flames have blackened about 1,300 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes across California. Most of the blazes were sparked by a June 21 lightning storm across the northern part of the state.

The current complex of fires is “the largest single fire event in history for California,” said Kelly Houston, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The previous record was set in the October 2003, when wildfires scorched more than 1,155 square miles (2,991 sq. kilometers), Houston said. State record-keeping on wildfires began in 1936.

The state defines a “fire event” as a grouping of blazes that fall within the same location or time period.

While the October 2003 fires killed 24 people and destroyed more than 3,600 homes, Houston said officials point to acreage when quantifying wildfires to point to the strain on firefighting resources.

A massive wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest continued spreading northward and eastward Monday, relieving the danger to the storied coastal town of Big Sur but forcing residents of another community to stay away from their homes for a third day.

Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders, first issued Saturday morning, remained in place for more than 200 homes in the rural Cachagua community northeast of Big Sur. The blaze, which already has charred 188 square miles (487 sq. kilometers) and destroyed 27 homes, was about 11/2 miles (2.5 kilometers) from the residential area, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighters had a strong fire line there that they expected to hold, keeping the flames from reaching the more populated Carmel Valley, said Tacy Skinner, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

Near the southern end of the Sequoia National Forest, a mudslide near an area scarred by fire poured into the small town of Lake Isabella in central California shortly after officials urged people to evacuate low-lying areas.

The slide Monday afternoon was nearly 3 feet deep and “has people’s belongings in it,” Donna Campbell, who works in the town, said early Tuesday. She said the slide covered one block of a street but was not as bad as others that happened during the weekend following heavy thunderstorms.

Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa in San Francisco contributed to this report.