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California Wildfires Raging On 2 Fronts

AMANDA FEHD | July 4, 2008 11:42 PM EST | AP

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A firefighter walks along a large hill backfire on a wildfire burn in Big Sur, Calif., Friday, July 4, 2008. The raging blaze near Big Sur was one of more than 1,700 wildfires, mostly ignited by lightning, that have scorched more then 770 square miles and destroyed 64 structures across northern and central California since June 20, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. (AP Photo/ Tony Avelar)

BIG SUR, Calif. — A pair of out-of-control wildfires roared along California's central coast Friday, chewing through opposite ends of a parched forest and threatening a total of more than 4,500 homes.

While flames from the stubborn fire in the northern flank of the Los Padres National Forest inched closer to Big Sur's historic vacation retreats, firefighters farther south braced for the return of evening winds that a day earlier caused a wildfire in Santa Barbara County to double in size and race dangerously close to hundreds of homes.

Residents of more than 1,700 homes in and around the city of Goleta were ordered to evacuate, joining an equal number of people who were told to leave Big Sur days earlier.

Driven by wind gusts as high as 40 mph, the Santa Barbara County fire was so fierce early Friday that firefighters at one point took shelter in about 70 homes they were trying to defend, said Capt. Eli Iskow of the county fire department.

"Hundreds of firefighters were in place around hundreds of structures," Iskow said. "I think we saved every one of those structures in that area."

Wind was less of a problem in Big Sur, which remained eerily empty under a thick blanket of fog and smoke at the start of the long holiday weekend. No more properties were lost since Thursday, but the density of the parched terrain allowed the 13-day-old wildfire to keep advancing on the storied tourist town, where flames made their way toward the scenic Pacific Coast Highway and sent forest creatures running toward the Pacific Ocean for cover.

On Friday evening hundreds of firefighters lit controlled fires along Highway 1 in a final effort to stop the Big Sur fire from crossing the highway where many more homes and businesses are located.

"We're fighting the fire on our terms," said U.S. Forest Service fire engineer Hector Sanchez. "We're lighting it slowly, and if we see it get out of hand we'll slow it down. It's perfect conditions, we don't have winds and we have cool temperatures."

While calmer winds aided firefighters in Big Sur on Friday afternoon, farther south in Goleta and Santa Barbara winds were coming from the north and blowing ash into both communities, said Forest Service fire spokesman Jim Turner.

"As far as we know the fire has moved northeast, against the wind, because of the terrain and fuel there," Turner said.

By Friday evening, the Big Sur fire was only 5 percent contained and had consumed more than 107 square miles and 20 homes, while the Goleta fire was 14 percent contained and had destroyed about a half-dozen outbuildings and more than 10 square miles.

The Los Padres blazes were two of 335 active wildfires burning in California, down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires a few days ago, but they were commanding the greatest share of equipment and personnel because of their locations near populated areas, Berlant said.

"Any time we have structures threatened and lives at risk, it's a top priority," he said.

Goleta resident Susan Ramirez said she and her husband and two children evacuated their duplex about 2 miles from the fire late Thursday as conditions deteriorated. They were staying with her parents, also in Goleta, and watching the smoke.

"It was completely black, and there was too much ash," Ramirez said. "Our eyes were burning, and we were trying to get out of there as fast as we could."

Since a series of dry lightning strikes ignited more than 1,500 wildfires across central and Northern California on June 21, more than 520,000 acres, or 814 square miles, of range and forest land has gone up in flames.

Along with the Goleta and Big Sur fires, another fire generating concern is in the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, where a wind-driven blaze had burned 28 square miles, destroyed one home and threatened 1,000 more in nearby communities. It was 18 percent contained on Friday evening.

A mobile home fire in Malibu quickly spread to brush Friday, burning about 25 acres and leading to the evacuation of Malibu Creek State Park. At one point it threatened a Hindu temple and the historic King Gillette ranch, built in the 1920's for razor magnate King C. Gillette. Firefighters had the blaze nearly contained Friday evening.

In Arizona, officials said a blaze southeast of Prescott had burned four homes since it broke out June 28. The blaze has forced the evacuation of the mountain town of Crown King and was half contained Friday night.

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Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles and Jordan Robertson in Carmel, Calif., contributed to this report.

Filed by Nick Sabloff  |  Report Corrections