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Tired firefighters battle 330 fires

LOS ANGELES — Cooler weather conditions Sunday were giving a boost to firefighters battling a massive wildfire that threatened nearly 2,700 homes in Santa Barbara County.

The four-day-old fire in the Los Padres National Forest, which has consumed about 13 square miles, spread slightly overnight but firefighting crews kept up with the expanding blaze, county spokeswoman Vickie Guthrie said.

As of Sunday morning, the fire was 28 percent contained, she said.



With lower winds and higher humidity forecast for Sunday, crews were optimistic they could get more acreage under control. Temperatures were forecast to reach the high-70s later Sunday.

“They expect to make progress today,” Guthrie said.




Wildfires have burned more than 800 square miles of land and destroyed at least 69 homes throughout California, mainly in the northern part of the state, in the past two weeks. One firefighter died of a heart attack while digging fire lines.

About 1,400 fires have been contained, but more than 330 still burned out of control Sunday morning.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who on Saturday visited a command post in the coastal region of Santa Barbara County, has ordered 400 National Guard troops to be trained in wildfire fighting so they could help fight the state’s blazes.

He also urged lawmakers to adopt his budget plan for a $70 million emergency surcharge on home and business insurance policies to buy more firefighting equipment.

Nearly 2,700 homes in Santa Barbara County remained under mandatory evacuation Sunday and people in another 1,400 were warned to be ready to flee if the flames gathered speed.

The fire, which was burning in 15-foot-high, half-century-old chaparral, still had the potential to roll through a hilly area of ranches, housing tracts and orchards between the town of Goleta and Santa Barbara, keeping firefighters on their toes.

Nearly 1,200 firefighters struggled to surround the blaze while a DC-10 air tanker and other aircraft dumped water and fire retardant along ridges and in steep canyons.

Investigators think the fire, which began Tuesday, was human-caused. The U.S. Forest Service has asked for public help in determining how it was set.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s cooler weather also helped firefighters advance on a two-week-old blaze that has destroyed 22 homes in Big Sur, at the northern end of the Los Padres forest.

The fire, which has charred 113 square miles, was 11 percent contained, a slight jump from the day before. Fire officials said crews were burning out brush between the fire’s edge and Big Sur’s famed restaurants and hotels and cutting more lines to halt flames creeping down from ridge tops.

“The biggest challenge is whether or not the containment lines that they’re building now and continuing to improve are going to hold as the fire approaches,” said Rolf Larsen, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The weather was expected to become hotter and drier over the next couple of days, according to the National Weather Service.

California now has a year-round fire season and needs the money from the fee, which should cost the average homeowner about $1 a month, Schwarzenegger has said.

___

Associated Press writers Samantha Young in Sacramento, Christopher Weber and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, Lisa Leff in San Francisco and Amanda Fehd in Berkeley contributed to this report.


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