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Heat and smoke hamper fire battle

Times Staff Writers

Exhausted firefighters continued to wage a blaze-by-blaze battle Thursday against the swath of wildfires bedeviling the state, with the biggest showdown looming in Butte County as flames plowed toward several tiny backwoods towns and threatened the town of Paradise.

That 48,000-acre blaze in Northern California was elevated to the top firefighting priority in the state after destroying as many as 50 homes earlier this week. It is being fought by more than 3,000 firefighters in triple-digit temperatures under a thick pall of smoke and tricky breezes that are whipping up the flames.

A massive blaze in Big Sur, meanwhile, hit a Zen monastery deep in the Los Padres National Forest, but five Buddhist monks who remained behind helped beat back the flames, which claimed just three small buildings on the edges of the 160-acre retreat.

“Praise the Buddha,” said Keither Meyerhoff, a spokesman for the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center who talked to the monks via satellite phone. “The fire roared in from three sides, then let off when it hit because we’d been doing so much watering that the humidity was high.”

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Farther down the coast in Santa Barbara County, the 9,400-acre Gap fire that had posed a threat to the city of Goleta last week before being turned back was burning through chaparral in rugged areas north of Goleta. And to the east in Kern County, the Piute fire had blackened 34,000 acres and destroyed half a dozen homes south of Lake Isabella and threatened more than 1,000 more.

The biggest immediate threat, however, was in Butte County, where dozens of homes have been hit and flames continued to bear down on the hamlets of Yankee Hill and Jarbo Gap.

Fire engines took up sentry posts at homes, bulldozers raced the clock to carve fire breaks and helicopters stood poised to wage an aerial war.

“We’re trying to take a stand for those homes,” said Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

As the fire raced south along the east bank of an arm of the Feather River, bulldozers were busy on the west side plowing fire lines to keep embers from igniting a new blaze there. If flames were to reach the west side, they could stampede toward Paradise, a town of more than 30,000 north of Sacramento that was hit by mass evacuations after another fire claimed more than 75 homes just weeks ago.

Berlant said fire officials hoped to save about 1,000 backwoods homes in the flames’ path while keeping the blaze isolated to the east side of the river. He expressed concern about anticipated winds through the Feather River Canyon, which could whip up the blaze.

The hope is that the coming weekend will see enough of a drop in temperatures, rise in humidity and shift in breezes to allow fire crews to corral the blaze with containment lines and end the siege of smoke that has plagued the region.

“It’s the smokiest we’ve seen up here,” said Berlant, from the fire command center in Paradise. “It’s even raising ash in Chico, which is 10 to 15 miles away. Today is definitely a gloomy day for residents in this area.”

More than 300 fires are still burning in the state since a barrage of lightning hit Northern California on June 20, igniting more than 1,750 fires. About 20,000 firefighters are attacking the fires, which have blackened more than 725,000 acres from the coast to the borders of Oregon and Nevada. The combined acreage is more than double the size of the city of Los Angeles.

Fire officials said about 13,000 residences statewide remained under threat from the flames. In all, 100 homes have been lost.

Seeking more federal help, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a conference call Thursday with Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff and several other Bush administration officials.

Federal officials say that 80% of a pool of available firefighters nationwide is already in California, but Schwarzenegger and others hope to get additional water-dropping helicopters as well as federal firefighters to tutor California National Guard troops being called into the battle.

Aaron McLear, a Schwarzenegger spokesman, said the governor was “very pleased by the response” from Bush administration officials. He said the governor emphasized that -- with the state’s wildfire season just starting -- ongoing help would be needed. “They got that,” he said.

In Goleta, firefighters were encouraged by their progress. They said the blaze was 70% contained and would be fully encircled by Wednesday.

“It’s a very encouraging report,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Byron Haire. “We’re not out of the woods, but it looks a whole lot better.”

Tassajara’s monks also got what they wanted -- the survival of their retreat in the wilds of Big Sur.

In the three weeks since the fire first broke out, they rushed to clear brush, sweep up leaves and fashion sprinkler systems on the roofs of many of the monastery buildings. Several structures also were wrapped in a kind of protective foil.

The San Francisco Zen Center reported on its website that the group left behind -- including Abbott Steve Stucky and center director David Zimmerman -- fought fatigue late in the day to continue putting out spot fires.

The fate of three California condor chicks caught in the Big Sur fire zone was still unknown.

“We know exactly where the nests are, but we haven’t been able to get in there to confirm the fate of the chicks,” said Kelly Sorenson, a biologist who heads the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit group that runs a sanctuary for the endangered birds.

At the sanctuary, only the three chicks and a 3-year-old, known as 377, are unaccounted for, even though the fire wiped out holding pens, a water system and equipment.

“We’re going to rebound,” Sorenson said, “just like nature.”

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Francisco Vara-Orta contributed to this report.


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