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California Firefighting Efforts Complicated By Heavy Rains

AMANDA FEHD | July 14, 2008 08:45 PM EST | AP

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An aerial infrared image of a wildfire area forms the backdrop for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the podium, as he, state fire officials, and NASA employees address the media at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., Monday, July 14, 2008. Schwarzenegger toured the facility to discuss the important role of NASA’s remotely piloted aircraft, named Ikhana, play as part of California’swildfire fight. The unmanned aircraft carrying a NASA infrared scanning sensor flew over much of the state this past week, gathering information that was delivered to fire commanders in the field, helping them understand the terrain and behavior of the state’s most dangerous fires. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A large wildfire in a national forest spread farther away from the storied coastal town of Big Sur on Monday but forced residents of another community to stay away from their homes for a third day.

Evacuation orders first issued Saturday morning remained in place for more than 200 homes in the rural Cachagua community northeast of Big Sur. The blaze, which already has charred 187 square miles and destroyed 27 homes, was about 1 1/2 miles from the area, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighters had a strong fire line in the Los Padres National Forest there that they expected to hold, keeping the flames from reaching the more populated Carmel Valley, said Tacy Skinner, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

On the southwest border of the blaze, which was more than 60 percent contained, firefighters were in cleanup mode Monday. The scenic Pacific Coast Highway fully reopened ahead of schedule a day earlier, and residents and business owners in Big Sur _ a tourist area historically popular with writers and artists _ began settling back in after three weeks of evacuations.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 288 blazes were still burning around the state, most of them in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

So far this fire season, flames have blackened nearly 1,300 square miles and destroyed about 100 homes across California. Most of the blazes were sparked by a June 21 lightning storm across the northern part of the state.

The current complex of fires is "the largest single fire event in history for California," said Kelly Houston, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

The previous record was set in October 2003, when wildfires scorched more than 1,155 square miles, Houston said. State record-keeping on wildfires began in 1936.

The state defines a "fire event" as a group of blazes within the same location or time period.

While the October 2003 fires killed 24 people and destroyed more than 3,600 homes, Houston said officials point to acreage when quantifying wildfires, to point to the strain on firefighting resources.

On Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, where he credited the use of NASA-developed technology for saving lives last week as fires raged in Butte County.

An unmanned drone using infrared technology discovered a hot flare-up in a canyon near the town of Paradise, prompting evacuation orders for 10,000 people. Thick smoke and heat had prevented other aircraft from patrolling the area.

"This unmanned plane is a true life-saver. But even though we get all this terrific help, California needs more resources; there's no two ways about it," Schwarzenegger said as he pushed an initiative to charge homeowners a fee to pay for emergency response equipment.

Cooler weather around the state allowed officials to lift evacuation orders in the fire-ravaged towns of Paradise and Concow. The fires there, which burned 83 square miles and destroyed 50 homes in the area, weren't threatening any homes Monday, officials said.

"Things still seem to be looking pretty good. They are still making progress on it; I haven't heard of any problems today," said Kevin Colburn, a state fire department spokesman in Butte, adding that triple-digit temperatures that had been expected Monday never materialized. Highs were in the mid-90s, helping the firefight.

At least one person was found dead after the blaze swept through Concow.

A fire on the southern extension of the Los Padres forest near Santa Barbara County was 90 percent contained by Monday after charring more than 15 square miles, but 55 homes remained under an evacuation warning.

In Washington state, about 160 homes remained evacuated Monday north of Wenatchee, where two fires had burned nearly 23 square miles and were 60 percent contained.

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Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa in San Francisco contributed to this report.

Filed by Nick Graham  |  Report Corrections