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Brief rain aids battle against 80,000-acre wildfire burning Joshua trees in Mojave Desert

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Fire crews fighting California’s largest wildfire of the year, which has grown to over 80,000 acres in the eastern Mojave Desert, made the first real inroads against the massive blaze overnight.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire was 23% contained after a night of lighter fire activity and about 15 minutes of a “wetting rain,” said Marc Peebles, spokesperson for the California Incident Management Team 13, the federal multi-agency response to the York fire.

“That doesn’t put the fire out or get us out of the woods, so to speak,” Peebles said. “It allows the firefighters to engage directly on the fire’s edge, taking out some of that heat.”

Until Tuesday, the fire had been burning completely uncontained since the flames were spotted Friday in the Mojave National Preserve, home to the protected Joshua tree and other fire-vulnerable species.

Crews continue to battle the flames in a scorching heat — with temperatures reaching the desert’s typical summer highs above 100 degrees — along with high winds and low visibility. A monsoonal influence over the area has brought more strong gusts, which can stoke flames, along with the helpful moisture.

“The fire’s moderated a little bit [today], so the smoke levels have improved,” Peebles said, after visibility Monday was as limited as one mile.

The fire’s footprint grew by about 3,000 acres from Monday, still burning primarily in the eastern portion of the national preserve. The flames spread into western Nevada over the weekend.

It still isn’t immediately clear how many Joshua trees are threatened by the York fire, but park officials have said it appears that flames have gone through some of their forests, as well as juniper and pinyon pine groves. Joshua trees, which grow in the Mojave Desert and nowhere else, are particularly vulnerable to fire, with little natural defense.

Though large wildfires historically have not burned in California’s deserts, experts say the particularly wet winter and cool spring helped invasive grasses and underbrush flourish in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, providing ample fuel for such blazes as the vegetation dried out amid soaring temperatures last month. Just 10 days before this wildfire was spotted in the New York Mountains area of the preserve, park officials warned of extreme fire risk for the federally protected desert, banning all open flames.

Fire crews are working with National Park Service experts to limit destruction of important natural resources, Peebles said.

“Those resource advisors are out there and they know all the areas that are sensitive or there are endangered species,” Peebles said.

Almost 400 personnel are assigned to the wildfire; its cause remains under investigation. However, officials have determined the flames started on private land within the preserve, said Stephanie Bishop, a National Park Service public information officer and a spokesperson for the York fire.

Meanwhile, the Bonny fire, burning in Riverside County southwest of Anza, has forced dozens to evacuate. It remained at about 2,300 acres as of Tuesday morning, with 40% containment — up from 20% on Monday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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