Hot, drier weather developing on firelines |

Hot, drier weather developing on firelines

LOS ANGELES — The return of some residents to their homes Monday marked progress in California’s siege of wildfires, but forecasters warned that weather was turning back in favor of the flames.

“A high pressure system is setting up over entire West,” said Mike Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. “So in addition to the very warm temperatures we’re getting, we’ll also be getting a little bit of offshore wind over the next couple of days, which keeps the moist marine air from coming inland.”

The turn toward hot and drier weather comes as three major forest blazes – the Gap fire above the city of Goleta west of Santa Barbara, the Basin Complex fire 150 miles to the northwest at Big Sur and the Piute fire in the southern Sierra Nevada – are all less than half contained.

Those fires, considered the most dangerous in potential to cause losses, were among more than 300 still uncontained out of some 1,780 that have scorched a total of more than 800 square miles of California in two weeks. Most were started by lightning strikes, but several are believed to have been human-caused.

At least 69 homes statewide have been destroyed. One firefighter died of a heart attack.

The 14-square-fire Gap fire was 35 percent contained, mostly on its southern side bordering neighborhoods.

More than 2,000 residents were able to return home Monday, said Roger Aceves, Goleta’s mayor pro tem.

But some mandatory evacuation orders and warnings to be ready to leave remained in effect for scattered homes on the fire’s growing western flank on the Santa Ynez Mountains, he said.

“There are a lot of homes in the hills, and horse and cattle ranches,” Aceves said.

Aceves said residents were immensely grateful to firefighters, who in some instances beat back flames from front doors. But they were still concerned that the fire could whip up again.

“We know what can happen,” Aceves said. “This is brush that hasn’t burned since 1955.

Five fresh “hot shot” crews from Arizona and New Mexico, totaling 100 firefighters, were brought in Monday to the region about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“They’re going to try to create a line around the western end,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea.

Officials for the 120-square-mile Basin Complex near Big Sur and the 40-square-mile Piute fire said those blazes won’t be controlled for at least another two weeks.

The Basin Complex, just 18 percent contained, was raging through the remote Ventana Wilderness where difficult access made it hard to build containment lines, said Jim Turner, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

A mandatory evacuation remained in effect for all residents of Big Sur. Firefighters were struggling to widen fire lines near Highway 1 and residential areas to between 300 feet and a quarter mile, Turner said.

The Piute fire was 26 percent encircled. Unexpected winds pushed it on several flanks Monday, causing flames to jump western containment lines and run up Brown Peak. Air tankers and helicopters dumped flame retardant.

“The steep challenging terrain makes it tough to work directly,” said Bob Kurilla, Piute fire spokesman. “It will take a little while, but we’re making progress.”

Associated Press Writers Juliana Barbassa and Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.

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