Much of California seemed ablaze Tuesday with the worst of the fires roaring through about 15,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Jose, threatening at least 2,000 homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 4,500 people.
The fire was being driven by capricious 30-m.p.h. winds east of Lexington Reservoir near Los Gatos and had destroyed at least six homes south of the reservoir, officials said.
A California Department of Forestry spokesman said it is known that the fire was caused by arson, but no specifics were released in order to “to protect evidence.”
The communities of Aldercroft Heights, Soda Springs, Mt. Bache, Highland and Idylwild on the east side of California 17 were evacuated. Residents of Redwood Estates were alerted to pack and be ready to go in case flames leaped that major highway between Santa Cruz to San Jose.
By nightfall, Skyline Ridge was under threat and the fire was pushing generally south and east from the reservoir. But the western flank was being held by the 1,600-man force.
Fire officials said Tuesday evening that the fire was about 20% contained, but they were making no predictions about when they could fully contain it.
Thick, black smoke made it difficult for air tankers to attack the flames in both Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties with water scooped from the reservoir.
Six California National Guard helicopters were sent from Sacramento to help shuttle crews to hot spots.
California Department of Forestry spokesman Mike Gagarin said firefighters were being hampered by steep terrain, thick burnable brush, high temperatures and winds.
Evacuees were being sheltered at the Los Gatos Union High School gymnasium.
Jane Hindmarsh of the state Office of Emergency Services said nine fires had burned more than 200,000 acres throughout California. Four of the fires were regarded as major. Another 100,000 acres had already burned in earlier blazes. The damage estimates ranged from $30 million to $50 million.
U.S. Forest Service information officer Bob Swinford said this has become the worst fire season in California in five years.
The same winds whipping up the Lexington Reservoir fire were spreading two lightning-caused blazes through the scenic coastline area of the Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur.
The most troublesome fire in that region of Monterey County was the Rat Creek blaze, about 15 miles south of Big Sur. It erupted Saturday afternoon and grew from 3,700 acres on Monday to more than 11,200 acres by Tuesday afternoon. Eight structures were lost, including two homes in the Dolan Creek area.
By Tuesday evening, the flames had broken through lines on the southern side, posing a threat to the coastal community of Lucia, where one or two cabins were reported burned. Residents were evacuated from that sector.
Nearly 2,000 firefighters were battling both the Rat Creek fire and the other lightning blaze near Gorda, also in the national forest. The latter was posing some threat to the town but was about half contained after burning nearly 2,000 acres.
Also in Monterey County, an estimated 15,000 acres had been burned near King City. That fire, also caused by lightning, was about 15% contained but had destroyed three homes and three barns. Two dozen people had been evacuated from homes and a trailer park.
With those fires raging in Northern California, Gov. George Deukmejian declared a state of emergency in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Monterey counties, opening the way for temporary housing aid and low-interest loans to victims.
In the meantime, Southern California’s two major blazes--in Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties--were still tying down a combined total of 5,000 firefighters after more than a week.
The 64,000-acre Las Pilitas fire that broke out near Santa Margarita Lake on July 1 and nearly swept into the city of San Luis Obispo on Monday morning was declared 80% contained Tuesday, and a state Office of Emergency Services spokeswoman said authorities expect full containment by Thursday.
Crews were backfiring across 10,000 acres along La Cuesta Ridge south of Santa Margarita in steep terrain. In the meantime, U.S. 101 remained closed between San Luis Obispo and Atascadero. Motorists were being diverted through Morro Bay over California 1 and California 41. Officials were not yet ready to say how long that situation will exist.
Also still closed Tuesday were the California Polytechnic State University campus on the north side of San Luis Obispo and the county airport on the south side.
The Las Pilitas fire, whose cause was under investigation, destroyed 7 homes, 5 large buildings, 10 vehicles, 3 cabins, 3 barns and 8 garages. At least 14 people were injured.
In Ventura County, the Wheeler Springs fire, which also began July 1 and has threatened both the towns of Ojai and Carpinteria, was causing problems Tuesday east of Ojai as the east flank of the blaze moved slowly toward homes in sparsely populated Sisar Canyon.
Extra hand crews and bulldozers were moved into that sector, and scattered families were being evacuated.
There was more trouble, also, with flames in the Rose Valley area near California 33 north of Ojai, where firefighters were trying to establish a 100-foot-wide brush break. On the west flank of the fire, near Jameson Lake north of Carpinteria, there was backfiring as bulldozers cut firebreaks.
Temperatures were over 100 degrees in the region, but the winds were not too troublesome.
That arson-caused fire--the largest in the state--had burned 86,500 acres by Tuesday. Nineteen homes had been destroyed or damaged. Also burned were 37 outbuildings and 51 vehicles. The fire was only 50% contained.
A U.S. Forest Service spokesman said “significant links” had been discovered between the Wheeler Canyon fire and several other blazes erupting in the Ojai area. A reward for information leading to the arsonist was raised from $5,000 to $10,000.
In Fresno County, fires started by lightning had burned a total of nearly 10,000 acres of brush and grass a dozen miles northwest of Coalinga. Most of those blazes were out or contained, but firefighters were struggling to beat down one that had burned about 2,000 acres in terrain so steep they had difficulty standing.
State Department of Forestry spokesman Richard Schell said air tankers were striking at the head of the fire with retardants.
“If we don’t hold it there,” he said Tuesday afternoon, “it could burn 30,000 or 50,000 acres before it gets done.”