With more than 1,000 fires burning in Central and Northern California, President Bush on Saturday designated a region stretching from Nevada to the Pacific Ocean a federal disaster area. Firefighters hoped the arrival of a thick marine layer would aid their intense battle.
The emergency declaration brings with it both equipment and financial relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the counties of Butte, Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta and Trinity, where fires, many triggered by lightning, have charred more than 308,000 acres and destroyed at least 28 homes -- 16 of them in the mountains near Big Sur's legendary 70-mile coastline.
More than 6,800 homes are threatened across California, said Cheri Patterson, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Protection. More than 17,000 firefighters from more than 35 states are battling the fires. The effort includes 1,194 fire engines and 85 helicopters, according to the department.
Even with the federal help, the state will need additional money to pay for the high cost of fighting the blazes, said Frank McCarton, chief deputy director in the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who thanked the president for the declaration, said in a statement, "It is hot, and the state is tinder-dry. This will be a long fire season."
The windy, dry weather abated somewhat on Saturday.
"You know our lives are ruled by the weather and, thankfully, we are predicting very light winds, and we have a thick marine layer," said Tina Rose, another spokeswoman for the forestry department.
With so many fires, state officials are having difficulty updating data.One of the most threatening blazes, the Basin fire near Big Sur, had burned 30,043 acres -- it grew by 3,062 acres on Saturday. It was only 3% contained Saturday evening, said Kathy Good, a spokeswoman for the Los Padres National Forest.
California Highway 1 remained closed from Lucia to just south of Big Sur -- with fire on a ridge above the road. The only access to Big Sur is from the north.
"We'll be on this one for the long haul," Good said. "It's going to be a very tough fire. . . . It's rugged, it's road-less with very little access and it gets very hot."
In Big Sur, the Post Ranch Inn reopened to guests on Saturday and the Ventana Inn's website said guest stays would resume Monday afternoon.
The Nepenthe restaurant, known for its ocean views, reopened Friday. Business was slow Saturday, with only 15 tables filled, said restaurant supervisor Shane Stephens.
On the backside of Big Sur in Los Padres National Forest, the monks of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center continued Saturday to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
With a potential threat from fires still burning on three sides, an inmate work crew and U.S. Forest Service strike team joined the two dozen Buddhist monks who remained at the spiritual retreat in case the flames advance.
Leslie James, a spokeswoman for the center, said the biggest threat appears to be a fire burning to the south, which could advance if prevailing winds kick up. Today, however, there was virtually no breeze, she said, and the fire seemed to have stalled.
A more immediate concern for the monks, James said, is that the professional firefighters are expected to leave by today and questions remained about when and if they would return.
"Everyone would feel better if the Forest Service fire crews stayed," she said.
The monks have been putting in 16-hour days clearing fire breaks and installing sprinklers atop structures on the 160-acre retreat.
Firefighters on Saturday finally managed to surround the 60,074-acre Indians fire that has been burning farther south in the Los Padres National Forest since June 8. Full containment is expected Thursday.
Times staff writers Steve Chawkins, Deborah Schoch and Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.