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Fast-moving fire destroys 40 homes in Northern California

Flames jump a fire line in Butte County. But firefighters continue to gain ground on blazes in Goleta and Big Sur.

July 09, 2008|Steve Chawkins and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

GOLETA, CALIF — . -- Firefighters on Tuesday continued to gain ground against the stubborn fires burning in Goleta and Big Sur, but a fast-moving fire in Northern California destroyed 40 homes.

The 38,000-acre blaze in Butte County jumped a fire line, forcing the evacuation of at least 1,000 residents in Paradise, 90 miles north of Sacramento. Officials said the greatest damage was in the rural town of Concow but that nearby communities were also threatened.

"There's just no predicting how things will go," said Wes Cochran, a spokesman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

By late afternoon, firefighters were working in triple-digit temperatures. Five separate, lightning-triggered blazes had joined to form the massive Camp fire. It had crossed a containment line overnight, burned homes in Concow and headed toward the Feather River, outside Paradise.

"We're hoping to make a stand at the river," Cochran said. "And we're expecting wind changes that could be favorable."

In Goleta, the 9,700-acre Gap fire was declared 50% contained, though officials could not predict when it would be fully encircled. Over the last few days, evacuated residents have been let back into their homes, but some on West Camino Cielo were still off limits.

With the blaze receding from areas closest to suburban neighborhoods, it is slowly advancing through thick brush to the north and northwest toward steep canyons dotted with homes.

"We've got a lot of structure protection crews just waiting," said Capt. Eli Iskow, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Though skies were nearly smoke-free over Goleta and Santa Barbara on Tuesday, the fire was near at hand.

Power lines have been engulfed by smoke and heat, triggering outages that have lasted from several minutes to several hours. At a theater complex in Goleta, signs announced that refunds would not be given on tickets or popcorn if the screens suddenly went dark.

In Big Sur, about 200 residents and business owners evacuated last week were allowed to return Tuesday to find out whether their properties had survived. The Basin Complex fire, which had burned 85,000 acres, was 23% contained by Tuesday morning. It had destroyed 23 structures and threatened 2,500 others.

Butch Kronlund knew his home was safe because he helped to keep it that way. Although the region was evacuated July 2, the general contractor never left Big Sur.

Kronlund went to the area to help build the posh Post Ranch Inn, and that's where he holed up for much of the last week.

He brought his generator so that the inn could fill its well, which supplied a nearby pond that firefighting helicopters used for water.

When buildings across the canyon from his ocean-view home burst into flame Friday, he went back and sprayed fire-retardant gel on the low-slung structure.

"The whole mountainside was on fire," he said Tuesday afternoon. "I figured if this thing didn't slow down, it would run through Ventana Inn and be on top of us."

Kronlund's house was spared.

"I'm very glad to be back," he said. "I'm very glad to have a home to come back to."

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Eric Bailey and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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