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Firefighters making progress

Increased crews and calming winds help in the battle against four major blazes in California.

June 14, 2008|Maria L. La Ganga and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

Firefighters in Northern California expect to fully contain a 600-acre blaze in the Santa Cruz Mountains by tonight, but struggled Friday to control three other major fires burning from Monterey County north to Tehama County.

Dying winds and beefed-up crews helped in the fight against the blazes, which by Friday night had burned nearly 50,000 acres, had injured 14 firefighters and civilians, had damaged or destroyed more than 70 buildings and were battled by more than 5,300 fire personnel, officials said.

The Humboldt fire -- at 22,833 acres, one of the biggest of the blazes -- destroyed 50 homes and threatened 4,600 additional structures in Butte County, where it began Wednesday.

It remains about 20% contained, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

After wind-whipped flames gusted toward Paradise on Thursday, fire officials ordered evacuations of about 1,500 residents in the southern part of the city of 30,000, which is 90 miles north of Sacramento.

But by Friday, Berlant said, "we're moving away from it being a wind-driven fire. Now it's a slope-driven fire."

That's normally good news, because fires propelled by geography are easier to control than those fanned by strong winds. In this case, however, the southern edge of Paradise is at the top of the slope.

But because the winds began to abate, Friday was "the first window of opportunity to make progress in containment lines," Berlant said. "It's the first time to get in front of the fire in Butte County."

Although the National Weather Service is predicting continued temperatures in the mid- to upper 90s in the area through the weekend, meteorologist Felix Garcia said that "it will not be as windy as the last few days" and that "helps to ease the fire danger."

The 600-acre Martin fire near the Santa Cruz County town of Felton was 65% contained by Friday morning after destroying 10 homes two days earlier, Berlant said.

But cooler temperatures, less windy conditions and higher humidity gave officials hope that the fire would be fully contained by tonight. Some residents who had been evacuated were allowed to return home Friday afternoon.

After burning for 24 hours in rural Tehama County, the 2,500-acre Whiskey fire was 10% contained Friday.

And the Indians fire in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest was 36% contained after burning 23,575 acres west of King City in Monterey County.

Jack Owen, a spokesman for the multi-agency team fighting the Indians fire, said U.S. Forest Service investigators had figured out that the blaze started when a campfire "escaped" and spread through the rugged wilderness.

"There is no containment or control date," Owen said. "The weather has been really the big factor. Humidity in the daytime has been ranging from 7% to 16%."

In addition to the four major fires that have covered newspaper pages and television screens this week, firefighters responded to 37 vegetation fires throughout Northern California.

"Forty-one is a huge number to have in a three-day period of time," Berlant said. But "we staffed up our fire engines, hired additional seasonal firefighters and moved air tankers to air bases a month earlier, thanks to an executive order the governor signed in the beginning of May."

That early staffing has been key in keeping the blazes under control in a drought-stricken state, he said.

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@ latimes.com

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