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National Guard to help fight N. Calif. wildfires

It is the first time in 31 years that ground forces are deployed as firefighters battle more than 1,400 blazes.

July 02, 2008|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Firefighters on Tuesday continued to battle a fusillade of wildfires plaguing Northern California, including a destructive blaze that has charred homes and threatened tourist haunts along the Big Sur coast.

With more than 425,000 acres burned, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the California National Guard to deploy ground forces for the first time in three decades to help weary firefighters battling blazes from Kern County to the Oregon border.

Flames dogged the Big Sur coast in the Los Padres National Forest, where they have destroyed 16 coastal homes and continue to threaten 1,200 more residences and some famed local institutions.

U.S. Forest Service officials ordered about 200 people along a sparsely populated, 20-mile stretch of coast south of the town of Big Sur to evacuate late Tuesday afternoon as a precautionary measure to allow controlled burns intended to solidify containment lines, said John Ahman, a spokesman for the agency.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Big Sur fire: A map with an article in Monday's Section A about the Basin Complex fire, as well as maps of the fire in other recent editions, showed Big Sur's Nepenthe Restaurant on the east side of Highway 1. It is on the west side of the highway.

Among the spots evacuated, he said, were the Esalen Institute and the Immaculate Heart Hermitage.

At 9:40 p.m., residents were ordered to evacuate two canyons above Goleta because of a new fire that broke out earlier in the evening in the Los Padres National Forest. The so-called Gap fire started about 5:45 p.m. on a ridge above the Santa Barbara County community; the cause was unknown, a spokesman said. The evacuation order was mandatory in Glen Annie and La Patera canyons, and an evacuation warning was issued for residents above Cathedral Oaks Road, between Glen Annie Road and Fairview Avenue.

In the Big Sur area, containment lines were being laid down in an effort to hem in the Basin Complex fire, which has proved to be the most destructive of the more than 1,400 lightning-sparked fires that have racked the northern part of the state since June 21.

Of the 29 homes destroyed statewide in the blazes, most were nestled on the panoramic hillsides rising from the Big Sur coast.

Weather continued to help firefighters in Big Sur to control the blaze, which has charred nearly 50,000 acres. Fog is expected through the week, and winds from the north continued to push the blaze back on itself, slowing its march toward the region's most populated areas.

"I would say we're cautiously optimistic with the current conditions," Ahman said. "With the marine layer and light winds, we haven't had any huge runs by the fire."

But those same winds could turn problematic in the coming days. The breezes are expected to pick up through Thursday, with gusts blowing from the north at up to 20 mph, potentially whipping up the blaze anew.

The winds also could push the fire deeper into the Ventana Wilderness and toward the remote outpost of Tassajara Hot Springs, where the Buddhist monks of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center have been preparing for days to fight the flames along with Forest Service crews.

The fire's northeast flank also is edging perilously close to a cabin owned an octogenarian backwoodsman named Jack English. In recent days, English had refused entreaties by law enforcement and fire officials to evacuate his remote homestead in Pine Valley, more than four miles from the nearest public dirt road.

Ahman said there are areas of fire so deep in the forest that they are virtually impossible to fight except with helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft.

"There are areas where you just can't put in people, so it becomes an air show or perhaps a few repellers dropped from helicopters," he said.

Although the Basin Complex fire remains less than 5% contained, an even bigger blaze burning to the east in Los Padres National Forest is expected to be fully controlled by Thursday, fire officials said.

In other parts of Northern California, more than 100 of the fires ignited by the lightning barrage 10 days ago continued to burn, though authorities said they were getting the upper hand.

Firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have contained scores of fires and made good progress on many others, said spokesman Daniel Berlant.

"We got through this last weekend without more problems from lightning, and the injury count and destruction remains extremely low given the number of fires and acres burned," he said.

About 200 Guardsmen will be deployed to help with hand crews -- a move that Schwarzenegger described as a "big shot in the arm" to the professional fire teams that have been battling blazes on and off for the last six weeks.

Brig. Gen. Kevin Ellsworth said soldiers from as far south as Santa Barbara will be trained for five days in the forests of Mendocino County, where scores of fires are still burning, and then deployed for three to four weeks to help mop up the blazes.

It marks the first time since 1977 that National Guard ground troops have been used to fight fires. The Guard's aerial fleet, including Black Hawk helicopters out of Los Alamitos, has been fighting the fires for more than a week.

Also, the California Conservation Corps has in recent days sent nearly 800 young workers to help fight the blazes. It is the largest such firefighting deployment in the organization's history, said David Muraki, the agency's director.

"This is a major natural disaster," Berlant said, describing one of the most widespread firefighting deployments in California history.

Nearly 19,000 firefighters from California and 41 other states have been on the front lines of the blazes, helped by more than 1,400 fire engines and scores of aircraft.

One result has been mounting costs. The tab for fighting the Big Sur blazes alone probably will soon top $50 million, according to the Forest Service.

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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