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Many more CA homes threatened

Resources stretched thin as fires keep burning in California, smoke prompts health warnings

BY VICKI DESORMIER | BIG SUR, CA | June 27, 2008

It seems like every time firefighters in California think they might get some relief, they have to head out the door to fight another blaze.

Hundreds of firefighters were working yesterday to try to keep the latest big fire threat away from about 500 homes in Big Sur. At least 16 homes have already been destroyed by the blaze. The blaze had consumed nearly 37 square miles and was less than 3 percent contained Thursday night.

The fire near Big Sur was just one of nearly 700 wildfires reported across the state this week. The large number of fires has prompted health officials in the San Francisco Bay area and Central Valley to issue air-quality warnings.

More than 20 fires that had been started by lightning earlier this week were reportedly threatening about 1,000 homes in Butte County Thursday. These fires come on the heels of a fire that burned 74 homes earlier this month.

Paul VanGerwen, a spokesman for the Bay Area region of the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (known as Cal Fire) said there is no end in sight for the expanding fire picture north of him all the way to the Oregon border. He said the contained fires are still burning in about a half dozen locations south and west of San Francisco.

"The fires up north are still spreading. They are working hard against the elements up there."

While cooler temperatures and higher humidity have made the job of firefighters easier in the Bay Area, hot, arid conditions to the north have turned everything in the area north of Contra Costa into kindling that is feeding wildfires, most of them started by dry lightning. Twenty-three of the three dozen major fires Cal Fire is fighting are north of that line. Dozens of small fires are also burning throughout the northern part of the state as well.

Felix Garcia, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the cooler, damp weather is not likely to move north and that no part of the state can expect an end to the drought that is gripping the region.

"There hasn't been any significant rain in California since February and overall, this year and last year are the two driest years on record for the state," he said. "There would have to be a lot of rain for a long time to make much difference in the state. And there is no rain in the forecast for any of the regions where the fires are burning."

Garcia said the threat of more dry lightning strikes is possible and that while the winds have slowed a bit, the weather from the Napa Valley to the Oregon border will continue to be the enemy of the firefighters.

The numbers change from report to report, Van Gerwen said, but approximately 115,000 acres are currently on fire in the state. More than 2500 homes were in some danger of being burned as of Thursday afternoon. The fires that are near homes and businesses are being contained first.

"Our first priority is to protect people and property," he said, "but there are a lot of acres that are not near people that are burning."

With temperatures soaring over 100 degrees and no moisture in the air, fires are building, rather than subsiding in the more rural north, officials said. The focus, once the fires in the more populated areas are completely contained, will be on attempting to contain the wildfires. Until the fires are contained, VanGerwen said, there won't be a lot of effort put into extinguishing the flames. Trenches and firewalls to keep the hundreds of fires and fire complexes from spreading have been the way in which the fire officials have taken control of the situation, he said.

Stefanie Segur, Public Relations Director for the Salvation Army-Del Oro Division, said canteens have been deployed to locations throughout the northern part of the state where volunteers can provide hot meals and cold drinks to both firefighters and those whose homes are being threatened by the fires.

"The (Salvation) Army also has disaster response teams in Napa and Concord and on the scene at the Napa Fire," she explained. "We also have crews across Northern California who are monitoring other fires and are ready to respond immediately."

For now, the residents whose homes were destroyed have found temporary living quarters with friends and family so no shelters have been opened in the state.

Fire crews from Nevada and Oregon have been sent to California to help fight the fires.


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