Wildfires Push Some from Homes; Some Allowed Back

By: Malia Wollan AP
By: Malia Wollan AP

BIG SUR, Calif. (AP) - Firefighters pushed back a blaze threatening this small coastal community just enough to allow hundreds of people to check on their homes Tuesday as a separate fire 300 miles north forced residents of another town to evacuate.

Fire crews have been straining to cover hundreds of active California wildfires, many of which were ignited by a lightning storm more than two weeks ago. A heat wave forecast to linger in much of the state until the weekend was making the job all the more difficult.

Winds of up to 30 mph fanned a blaze in Butte County, where firefighters went door to door overnight to evacuate 800 to 1,000 residents from the town of Concow, 85 miles north of Sacramento. A
15-square-mile fire threatening the rural town is one of 30 blazes that have been burning for weeks there.

"Now you're in a hell of a fire fight," said Todd Simmons, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Two homes have been destroyed, and the complex of fires in Butte
County was about 55 percent contained.

At least 23 homes and 25 other structures have been destroyed in the Big Sur area, where flames have marched over more than 125 square miles of forest land since June 21.

Although that fire is far from controlled - the rugged terrain has kept containment at 18 percent into the fire's third week - authorities lifted the mandatory evacuation order issued for 25 miles of the 31-mile stretch along the Pacific Coast Highway that had been closed.

Many of the 1,500 evacuated residents of Big Sur headed home Tuesday morning through smoke and ash, anxious to gauge the damage.

Dena Angelique, 34, unloaded hastily packed bags of books, photos, art supplies and clothes from the back of her dusty Toyota 4Runner after a week away from her home.

She was relieved to find the fire had stopped within 100 yards of the wood-frame house, though it had charred the nearby mountainside. She wasn't sure how long she'd stay; smoke and ashes still floated among the blackened remains of oak and pine, burning her throat.

"It was so insane watching the whole hillside burning," she said. "It's so nice to come back and know that we're safer here now."

Officials, however, cautioned that the lifted evacuation orders did not mean conditions had drastically improved.

"They still have an awful lot of active fire there. ... There were 2,500 residences still threatened," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Juanita Freel. She added that officials were trying to be sensitive to residents' needs to check on their properties.

Torrey Waag, 61, general manager of Deetjens Big Sur Inn, pulled up to the property Tuesday after a week away and found it looking
"pretty bleak."

When he left in the middle of the night, Waag packed old oil paintings, the office computers, some books and his meditation altar into his truck.

"I was very sad and worried at the idea of this place burning. The stuff here is irreplaceable," he said.

Three biologists from Ventana Wildlife Society have accounted for 23 of the 25 condors, most of them born in captivity, that make their homes in Big Sur. One of the missing birds is the alpha male of the group; the other is a nesting chick.

Joe Burnett, a senior biologist with the society who spent last week monitoring the birds via GPS "like a worried parent" said he was relieved to find four condors feasting on a dead sea lion pup. The researchers hadn't been able to supplement their feed in over a week.

"This fire has shown us these condors have the instincts to avoid fire and to survive. This is a big step closer to being true wild birds," Burnett said.

Homes in southern Santa Barbara County also were still threatened by another fire in the Los Padres National Forest above the city of Goleta.

More than 2,000 residents were allowed to return to their homes in Goleta on Monday, but about 275 homes remained under mandatory evacuation orders and 3,200 other homes were in areas where residents had been warned to be ready to leave. That fire is about
35 percent contained.

"Overall, the fire has calmed down in our most populated areas. ... Right now, we have a good fog layer, which is to our advantage," but temperatures were expected to top 100 degrees in the area, fire spokeswoman Pat Wheatley said Tuesday morning.

Temperatures in some parts of California's Central Valley were forecast to climb close to 110 degrees Tuesday. The agency that monitors the state's power grid said peak energy demand could approach the record set in July 2006, and it asked customers to reduce their late-afternoon power consumption.

The expected heat wave raised not only the fire danger, but also concerns about heat illness among firefighters worn down by the
long fight against blazes that have consumed more than 985 square
miles in California since late June.

"We do have a lot of fatigue because of the low numbers of resources in the state," said Thom Walsh, a Forest Service resource unit leader.

Crews took rest breaks in refrigerated trailers with bunk beds before returning to the field, but heat stroke was a worry, Walsh said.
Associated Press writers Juliana Barbassa and Evelyn Nieves in
San Francisco and Christina Hoag in Goleta contributed to this

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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