Fire Crews Make Progress On California Wildfires

Firefighters reported progress with a massive blaze in the Los Padres National Forest after beginning a series of controlled burns to clear tinder-dry brush in the path of flames that already have ravaged more than 190 square miles near the central California coast.

Mandatory evacuation orders remained in place Wednesday, so crews could continue the controlled burns for a second day.

The order affects about 20 homes, mostly cabins and summer homes, that dot the heavily wooded ridges near Carmel Valley, said Ruby Urueta, spokeswoman with the Monterey County Emergency Operations Center.

"People will see smoke, but it'll be a controlled operation," said Urueta.

About 200 homes already have been evacuated in the rural Cachagua community because of the fire danger.

The lightning-sparked blaze already has destroyed 27 homes along the storied Big Sur coast before spreading inland.

The fire, which has burned for more than three weeks, is 61 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

On Tuesday, authorities lifted the remaining evacuation advisories on the western flank of the blaze, including the town of Big Sur.

About 2,085 separate blazes have burned statewide since a massive lightning storm struck on June 21, ravaging nearly 1,400 square miles, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The updated number of fires reflects more accurate information obtained as crews make progress on the ground.

"Progress is really being made - we've really turned a corner," said Daniel Berlant, a state fire department spokesman.

"But we have to remember this is just July, and our biggest fires are historically in September and October. We really have to, as a state, not become complacent yet."

South of the Los Padres, where fires were followed by heavy rain and flooding, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Inyo County, the 12th California county to receive that designation because of the current wildfire outbreak.

To help fund the firefighting effort, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services approved on Tuesday the release of $41.5 million public assistance money to the California fire agency.

The funds will cover the cost of state firefighting overtime, equipment and materials as well expenses borne by local fire agencies.

Kelly Huston, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said Monday that the wildfires since June 21 are "the largest single fire event in history for California."

The complex of fires in Butte County, which has consumed 84 square miles and destroyed dozens of homes, is 75 percent contained.

At least one person was found dead after the blaze swept through the rural community of Concow. After completing an autopsy, the county coroner said Tuesday that he likely won't be able to determine a cause of death because the body was so badly burned.