Weary firefighters get no relief

Times Staff Writers

In the battle against a 49,000-acre fire in Butte County, the weather took the fire's side Wednesday.

Exhausted firefighters felt it turning against them. The winds whipped up. The air grew hotter. Black smoke fouled the sky.

All day, they hoped for a moist and cool night to tilt the balance in their favor. But dusk brought no relief. There was no dew, none of the normal evening chill. Just more scorching heat and parched air -- strange weather that seemed determined to thwart them.

"We really don't need it right now," said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Butte County blaze in Northern California surged to the forefront of statewide firefighting efforts Tuesday after flames there destroyed about 50 homes and forced about 10,000 residents to evacuate.

Elsewhere in the state, fire officials reported slow but steady progress. A vast blaze in the Big Sur area was still only 27% controlled, but firefighters were gaining against the fire near Goleta, which is at least 55% contained.

Since lightning bolts first ignited a drought-seared state June 20, California has seen more than 1,700 blazes destroy about 688,000 acres -- a combined acreage that's more than double the area of the city of Los Angeles.

Fire officials said about 12,800 residences remained under threat. In all, 99 homes have been lost. By late Wednesday, 322 fires still raged, and temperatures were projected to hit triple digits in some areas.

The threat to federal firefighting resources prompted U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Wednesday to seek $910 million in emergency federal funding for fire suppression and other fire-related needs.

"The situation in California is explosive," Feinstein wrote in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee. "Excessive-heat warnings have been issued, more dry-lightning strikes are expected, our resources are stretched to the breaking point, and the state remains tinder-dry."

The Butte County fire spreading through areas near Paradise, north of Sacramento, came within two miles of Paradise's Feather River Hospital. The staff scrambled to evacuate more than 40 patients.

By Wednesday afternoon, hallways there looked like a ghost town, said Jen Niswonger, an administrative resident who stayed behind at the hospital. At the Basin Complex fire in Big Sur, the blaze had claimed a whopping 86,726 acres by Wednesday morning and destroyed another home, bringing the total to 24 lost since June 21. Residents and business owners continued to trek back to the region, but Chief Frank Pinney of the Big Sur volunteer fire brigade said that the scenic route of California Highway 1 would remain closed to outsiders at least until Monday.

Nearly 2,300 firefighters went toe-to-toe with the blaze Wednesday in brutal, 115-degree heat, said Don Ferguson, a spokesman for the multi-agency effort. At least one firefighter suffered heat exhaustion and had to be carried out, he said. "You can't hardly keep water in these folks," Ferguson said.

All but five monks who had remained behind despite evacuation orders to try to keep the fire away from the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center finally decamped Wednesday with flames nearby.

Ferguson said that the "priority structures" at the monastery had been wrapped in a kind of protective foil. In the Goleta area, where about 200 acres of avocado orchards have been destroyed, bulldozer lines and fire breaks had hemmed in the southern edge of that fire by late Wednesday, though the flames were still advancing to the north, said William Boyer, a Santa Barbara County spokesman.

On the western edge of the blaze, firefighters got help from the California Army National Guard, which sent eight large bulldozers in a convoy up U.S. 101 to plow firebreaks into the mountain slopes.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

maria.laganga@latimes.com

francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

Times staff writer Eric Bailey and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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