Twin fires raging along CA central coast

July 5, 2008 5:55:33 PM PDT
Weary firefighters got no Independence Day reprieve from a pair of out-of-control wildfires that roared along California's central coast, chewing through opposite ends of an arid forest in the Los Padres National Forest.Despite cooler temperatures and light winds, flames from the stubborn fire that forced the evacuation of Big Sur inched closer to historic vacation retreats. Meanwhile, firefighters farther south dealt with winds with speeds up to 40 mph that fanned a wildfire in Santa Barbara County.

About 5,000 homes there were under evacuation orders, while residents in 1,400 homes were warned to pack up and be ready to leave on short notice, said county spokesman Jim McClure.

"The fire is expanding and presenting some very complex challenges because of the terrain and the fact that it hasn't burned in over 50 years," Capt. Eli Iskow of the Santa Barbara County fire department said. "And it's close to all the valuables like homes and people."

Meanwhile, Big Sur remained eerily empty under a thick blanket of fog and smoke at the start of the long holiday weekend. No more properties were lost, but the density of the parched terrain allowed nearly two-week-old wildfire to keep advancing on the storied tourist town, where flames were making their way toward scenic Highway 1 and sending forest creatures running toward the Pacific Ocean for cover.

Hundreds of firefighters lit controlled fires along Highway 1 in a final effort to stop the Big Sur fire from crossing the highway where many more homes and businesses are located.

"We're fighting the fire on our terms," said U.S. Forest Service fire engineer Hector Sanchez. "We're lighting it slowly, and if we see it get out of hand we'll slow it down. It's perfect conditions, we don't have winds and we have cool temperatures."

The Big Sur fire was still 5 percent contained and had consumed more than 107 square miles and 20 homes, while the Goleta fire was 14 percent contained and had destroyed about a half-dozen out buildings and more than 10 square miles.

The Los Padres blazes were two of 335 active wildfires burning in California, down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires a few days ago, but they were commanding the greatest share of equipment and personnel because of their locations near populated areas, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"Any time we have structures threatened and lives at risk, it's a top priority," he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered another 200 National Guard troops to report for firefighter training at a former Air Force base in Sacramento and then working a fire in Mendocino County early next week. When they complete the training, they will join 200 National Guard soldiers who already were deployed to build fire lines. More than 19,000 people were working to control blazes throughout the state.

"These additional soldiers will bring much needed assistance to the efforts of the firefighters who continue to tirelessly battle the blazes across California," Schwarzenegger said.

Since a series of dry lightning strikes ignited more than 1,500 wildfires across central and Northern California on June 21, more than 814 square miles of range and forest land has gone up in flames.

Along with the Goleta and Big Sur fires, another blaze generating concern was burning in the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, where a wind-driven wildfire had burned 28 square miles, destroyed one home and threatened 1,000 more in nearby communities. It was 18 percent contained.

In Arizona, officials said a blaze southeast of Prescott had burned four homes since it broke out June 28. The blaze has forced the evacuation of the mountain town of Crown King and was half contained Friday night.

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