Despite lighter wind, wildfires still raging on California coast
BIG SUR, Calif. - Weary firefighters got no rest during the holiday weekend as a pair of out-of-control wildfires roared across the landscape along California's central coast at opposite ends of the arid Los Padres National Forest.
Despite lower temperatures and lighter wind, one stubborn fire that had forced the evacuation of Big Sur inched closer to historic vacation retreats.
Farther south in the national forest, winds up to 40 miles per hour fanned a wildfire near Goleta in Santa Barbara County. About 5,000 homes were under evacuation orders, while residents of 1,400 other homes were warned to pack up and be ready to leave on short notice, said Jim McClure, a county spokesman.
"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," said Captain Eli Iskow of the Santa Barbara County fire department. "And it's close to all the valuables like homes and people."
Authorities planned an aggressive air attack on the Goleta fire yesterday, including drops from a huge DC-10 air tanker that made a single pass over the blaze Friday.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was scheduled to visit a command center near Goleta yesterday.
Big Sur was eerily empty under a thick blanket of fog and smoke at the start of the long holiday weekend as the nearly two-week-old wildfire advanced on the storied tourist town.
As the flames approached scenic Highway 1, forest animals were seen 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 US 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 only 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 outbuildings and had charred more than 10 square miles.
The two Los Padres blazes were among 335 active wildfires 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.
The governor ordered 200 more National Guard troops to report for firefighter training. After 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.
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 trees, grass, and brush has gone up in flames.
Along with the Goleta and Big Sur fires, another blaze generating concern was in the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield.
It 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 residents evacuated from the historic mining community of Crown King because of a wildfire would be allowed to return home yesterday evening.
The blaze was 50 percent contained yesterday, after charring nearly 16 square miles of brush and forest. About 120 residents of the mountain town, about 20 miles southeast of Prescott, Ariz., were evacuated June 29.
Firefighters managed to save most of Crown King's scattered 400 homes and vacation cabins, but four homes and seven other buildings were destroyed.