Crews forge progress against California fires

Sunday, July 6th 2008, 7:36 am
By: News 9

SANTA BARBARA, California  -- Authorities overseeing the battle against hundreds of wildfires in California had a mixed assessment as the weather forecast for Sunday stirred both hope and concern across the state.

Saturday's firefighting efforts went according to plan, the U.S. Forest Service said. The outlook, however, remained mixed Saturday night. Sunday's weather forecast gave encouragement to crews battling a fire in Santa Barbara County, but sparked concern among those fighting a blaze in the Big Sur area.

Containment of the Basin Complex Fire, in the Big Sur area, remained at 5 percent, but firefighters were close to completing a fire line along the northwest portion of the fire, the Forest Service said. On Sunday a controlled burning operation is to begin there to remove brush and other fuel from the wildfire's path.

But Sunday's forecast for the area was for much warmer temperatures, which could give the fire a boost, officials said.

The fire -- which threatens a 25-mile stretch of California Highway 1 -- has burned more than 68,000 acres so far, and 1,777 homes, 20 commercial properties and 195 other buildings are threatened, the Forest Service said.

Some 1,440 residents of the area have been ordered to leave their homes, although some have stayed in an attempt to protect their homes or businesses.

Only 22 structures have been lost to the fire so far, the Forest Service said. On Saturday, hand teams were beating out flames edging near the post office and a lodge in the town of Big Sur, it said.

Authorities are keeping an eye on Palo Colorado, a community of about 1,800 in a valley on the northern fringe of the affected area, the Forest Service said. If the fire would get into that valley, it said, concern would then be raised about Carmel, which sits over the next ridge.

Carmel is about 10 miles from the fire.

Further south, in Santa Barbara County, the forecast called for continued cooler temperatures. In addition, winds have been moving the fire north and east, away from Goleta, a city of about 29,000 just west of Santa Barbara.

More than 2,800 homes, 228 commercial properties and 200 other buildings have been threatened by the wildfire there in recent days, but only one residence, a motor home, has been destroyed, the Forest Service said.

As of Saturday morning, the Gap Fire had charred 8,357 acres, said Marian Kadota of the Forest Service, but containment increased from 14 percent to 24 percent as firefighters had made "good progress" on the southern end of the fire.

Meanwhile, a 48-year-old homeowner was arrested for setting backfires without permission as firefighters continue to battle two of California's most threatening wildfires.

The man was arrested for setting backfires around his home near the Big Sur area, Cliff Williams of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Saturday night. A backfire is a fire started to check an advancing fire by creating a burn area.

Firefighters discourage residents from setting backfires because homeowners do not know the location of firefighters and can inadvertently trap them, Williams said. The fire can also get out of control and injure other residents, he said.

The homeowner, who did not have any firefighting experience, was arrested for setting backfires in the area without permission and for disobeying an order by a firefighter, Williams said.

The Forest Service said Saturday it has set up a "tip line" as part of its investigation of the Gap Fire. Because the fire appears to have started in an area accessible to the public, investigators are looking for information that might indicate it was started by humans.

They are asking anyone who might have seen vehicles or people in the area where the fire started late Tuesday afternoon, or who have other information, to call (805) 961-5710.

During the past two weeks, more than 1,700 wildfires -- most sparked by lightning -- have charred a half million acres in California.

All but 100 fires are considered contained. About 20,000 federal, state and local firefighters have been battling the blazes.

"The firefighters are stretched thin, they are exhausted," and some have gone days without sleep, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a report from The Associated Press.

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