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Weather a help, hindrance to fires

BIG SUR — Cooler temperatures and marine fog allowed firefighters here to gain some ground early Saturday on an obstinate wildfire that wiped out this world-famous coastal retreat’s holiday tourist trade, prompting officials to direct personnel and equipment to a blaze expanding in Santa Barbara County where forecasts called for hotter weather in coming days.

With the fire in the southern end of the Los Padres National Forest growing, officials extended a mandatory evacuation order to cover 5,000 homes in and around the city of Goleta, while residents in another 1,400 homes were warned to be ready to leave on short notice, said county spokesman Jim McClure.

The amount of land consumed by the Santa Barbara County fire grew from more than 10 square miles to 13 square miles overnight, although it also nearly one-quarter contained, up from a contained level of 14 percent late Friday.



Authorities planned an aggressive air attack on the fire, including drops from a DC-10 air tanker that made a single pass over the blaze on Friday. In his weekly radio address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was set to visit a command center near Goleta on Saturday, cited the fires in promoting his budget plan to charge the average homeowner $12 a year to pay for emergency services.

“We no longer have a fire season that starts in the summer and runs through the fall. Because of the extreme dry conditions, we are now seeing fires as early as February that last all year,” Schwarzenegger said.




Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 firefighters still were trying to keep the two-week-old blaze in Big Sur that has blackened over 107 square miles in the northern end of the Los Padres forest and destroyed 20 homes from claiming local businesses and vacation retreats.

Crews lit backfires late into Friday night in an effort to protect properties along the scenic Highway 1 corridor, which firefighters were using as a natural fire break.

“We’re gaining ground, but we’re nowhere near being done,” said Gregg DeNitto, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service said. “There’s still a lot of potential out there. The fire has been less active the last couple of days. We’ve had favorable weather, they are taking every opportunity to get some line on it.”

But the weather is expected to worsen over the next couple of days, he said, with winds and temperatures rising and humidity dropping.

“The fire still has the potential for movement and the potential to get out of our containment lines,” DeNitto said. The Big Sur fire remained only 5 percent contained Saturday.

Kurt Mayer watched as crews slowly set the forest and brush on fire across the street from his Big Sur Deli on Friday night.

Dozens of firefighters stood guard along Highway 1 with their backs to the fire, watching the homes and business nestled into the green hillsides for any sign that the fire had jumped over the highway, while their colleagues behind them fanned the flames.

“You could call it uneventful even though it was spectacular,” Mayer said. “It was very well controlled.”

Mayer, who has hunkered down at his family’s business for three days, defying mandatory evacuation orders as the fire lurked in the canyon below, said it feels like his property and several homes behind him that abut the Pacific Ocean, are safe for now.

“I feel pretty good. It was like ‘Yahoo.’ It was amazing,” Mayer said.

Similar controlled burns appear to have protected several well-known businesses at the top of Big Sur Valley, including Ventana Inn and Nepenthe, Mayer said.

The Los Padres blazes were two of 334 active wildfires burning in California on Saturday, 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, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Arizona, officials said residents evacuated from the historic mining community of Crown King because of a wildfire would be allowed to return home Saturday evening. The blaze was 50 percent contained Saturday, 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 last Sunday. Firefighters managed to save most of Crown King’s scattered 400 homes and vacation cabins, but four homes and seven other buildings were destroyed.

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Associated Press Writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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