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Parched California scorched by multiple wildfires

world Updated: Aug 16, 2009 08:21 IST
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California Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger urged residents to heed mandatory evacuation orders on Saturday as 6,800 firefighters battled to control nearly a dozen blazes across the parched state.

Schwarzenegger met with firefighters at the Lockheed Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a day after the governor returned to the state from attending the funeral of his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver. The Lockheed Fire has blackened close to 8 square miles (21 square kilometers) of remote wilderness since Wednesday and prompted mandatory evacuations of the mountain communities of Swanton and Bonny Doon, which have about 2,400 residents and several wineries.

"These fires will be different than most of the fires because of the terrain," Schwarzenegger said. "It's very hard to get equipment in there and the resources in there. That's why you see a lot of helicopters and fixed winged aircraft being used." The fire spread slightly overnight but crews gained some ground when the winds died down, containing nearly 30 percent of the fire, said CalFire spokeswoman Julie Hutchinson.

But an offshore wind was expected to blow into the area later on Saturday, bringing hotter temperatures, dropping the humidity and drying out the trees and brush.

"If we get those winds, those high temperatures and low humidity, it could definitely cause a much more rapid fire and a lot more fire spread," Hutchinson said.

Schwarzenegger said the Lockheed Fire was one of 11 burning in the state. Other blazes have forced evacuations and knocked out power, and smoke and ash from the growing wildfire in Santa Barbara County whirled into the Los Angeles area, prompting an unusual weather forecast of "scattered smoke."

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi declared a state of emergency Friday for Santa Cruz County.

Schwarzenegger said 25 firefighters had been injured in various blazes, but the extent of their injuries wasn't immediately known. "We pray that they heal as quickly as possible," Schwarzenegger said.

The Lockheed Fire blaze started on Wednesday about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Santa Cruz. A change in winds shifted the fire away from Bonny Doon but closer to Swanton, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

No homes had been destroyed, and no injuries were reported. The blaze damaged two small structures and was threatening more than 1,000 homes and buildings. The cause is under investigation. Meanwhile, more than 230 homes and ranches in canyons and ridges near a wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest remained under evacuation orders.

The week-old blaze in northern Santa Barbara County has burned 118 square miles (305 square kilometers) of timber and brush in the Los Padres National Forest, 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. It was 25 percent contained Saturday. Nearly 2,000 firefighters were fighting the blaze, which started last Saturday. Bonnie Bartling with the National Weather Service said scattered smoke from the fire is in the weekend forecast for the Santa Monica Mountains, San Fernando Valley, and other areas of northern Los Angeles County.

In Yuba County north of Sacramento, where a wildfire was touched off when a red tailed hawk struck a power line and created a shower of sparks, 650 firefighters were battling blazes across 1.8 square miles of land.

The fire destroyed two homes Friday, forced the evacuation of about 120 residences and knocked out power in the Sierra foothills town of Dobbins, according to CalFire spokeswoman Joann Cartoscelli. Residents of about 40 of those homes were allowed to return after their evacuation orders were lifted.