Driver near forest fire is sought

As firefighters battled a 29,000-acre forest fire east of Santa Maria on Wednesday, investigators asked for the public's help in identifying the driver of a late-model Chevy van last seen in the area where the blaze started.

U.S. Forest Service special agents want to talk to the owner of a 2004-05 Chevy van that witnesses saw Saturday on Sierra Madre Road. The first plumes of smoke from the fire were reported about 2:50 p.m. that day.

Authorities aren't calling the driver a suspect, but they say they want to fill in information from other witnesses as to why the tan or gold-colored van was in the area. Anyone with information about the fire's origin is asked to call (805) 686-5074.

Throughout Wednesday, 1,800 firefighters and 10 water-dropping helicopters attacked the blaze in steep and inaccessible terrain. Weather has been hot and dry, with occasional 25-mile-per-hour wind gusts, authorities said. Some evacuations of the lightly populated area have been ordered and a Red Cross shelter has been set up at Cuyama Valley High School, officials said.

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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