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Rain, humidity aid fire crews battling blazes across state

Times Staff Writer

Lower wind speeds, rain and high levels of humidity helped firefighters battling blazes across the state Sunday, though officials feared that a series of mudslides and flash floods from the precipitation could hinder their progress.

“We have a good marine layer pushing in,” said Jason Meyer, a spokesman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who is watching the Basin Complex fire near Big Sur. “The fire’s kind of laying down a little bit; it’s giving us some time to work.”

That blaze has scorched more than 117,000 acres and destroyed 27 homes and 32 other buildings. Meyer said the fire is 61% contained and that officials project it will be fully controlled by the end of the month. So far, more than $42.2 million has been spent and nearly 2,200 people have been assigned to fight the fire, he said.

Firefighters had worried that flames could move further east and reach the historic Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, but Meyer said Sunday that the structure was no longer threatened.

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Officials earlier issued a mandatory evacuation for 217 homes in the Tassajara Road area, though five Buddhist monks stayed behind to care for the facility.

Crews cut fire lines around the center to help protect it, Meyer said.

Also on Sunday, officials reopened a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur that had been closed for weeks because of the blaze.

Since late June, more than 21,000 fire personnel have helped battle nearly 1,800 fires around the state, the bulk of which began after a fierce lightning storm. All but 288 of the fires have been contained, and together the blazes have burned more than 825,000 acres.

In Butte County, firefighters said Sunday that the blaze that had burned 53,000 acres is now 65% contained. About 10,000 residents were allowed to return to their homes Saturday.

Forestry department spokesman Tobie Edmonds said humidity was expected to be about 25% and that low winds up to 8 mph would help.

In nearby Concow, where a charred body was found in a blackened home Friday, Edmonds said crews were evaluating the area for residents’ reentry and looking for hot spots and burned trees that could fall on homes.

In addition to the fatality, 26 people there were injured, including firefighters with sprained ankles, cut hands and mild heat exhaustion, Edmonds said.

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Near Goleta, the 9,443-acre Gap fire was 85% contained and crews were controlling flare-ups in chaparral in mostly unpopulated areas.

Although officials said lower temperatures and higher humidity gave firefighters a better hold against many of the blazes, rain and thunderstorms in some areas over the weekend led to mudslides.

In Independence, near Death Valley National Park, a mudslide threatened about 50 structures and covered Highway 395 in debris.

Officials had been worried about a key aqueduct run by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in Owens Valley that was threatened by flowing debris, but said Sunday it had not been damaged.

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Over the weekend, Glen Cannon, assistant administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the nearly 1,800 lightning-sparked fires across the state over the last three weeks were “unprecedented in size and number.”

At least 400 troops from the National Guard are helping with the blazes, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for 2,000 more troops to bolster the crews.

International firefighters have also played an integral role in battling many of the blazes. Included was an air brigade from Canada that brought in four air tankers, each capable of holding 2,000 gallons of fire retardant.

About 40 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand were expected to touch down in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday night and were scheduled to be on California’s fire lines by Thursday.

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A crew of about 90 bomberos, the Spanish word for firefighters, is expected from Mexico.

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.


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