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The battle to protect Hearst Castle and its priceless artwork from dangerous wildfire

Hearst Castle was built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947 in California’s San Luis Obispo County and is now a state park and historical museum.

For several days now, teams of firefighters have been guarding Hearst Castle as the fast-moving Chimney fire burned nearby.

The historic 165-room estate remained closed Tuesday, though the landmark castle was still a beehive of activity.

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Parking lots outside the visitors' center are full, but with fire engines instead of tourists' cars. The property has been abuzz with hundreds of firefighters and is serving as a full-fledged operations center. Firefighting aircraft are even using the Hearst family's private airstrip, said Roger Colligan, a supervising ranger at California State Park.

The castle, he said, is full of "priceless, irreplaceable items." If staff had to remove them because of an immediate fire threat, "there would be security all the way around, everywhere," he said.

Hearst Castle staff had an evacuation plan but declined to provide specifics, citing security concerns.

No artwork has been removed from the castle, according to officials.. The estate's doors and windows have been closed to keep out smoke.

None of the castle's collections have been reported damaged by smoke or soot. Colligan said that if the marble on the property were to become darkened by soot, museum curators have a cleaning process and would be able to restore it.

Hearst Castle, built between 1919 and 1947 for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, is a museum and California state park, with more than 127 acres of gardens, pools and terraces. The hilltop property, which Hearst called La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for "the enchanted hill"), houses his extensive art and sculpture collection.

Colligan said that although the castle did not appear to be under immediate threat by the fire, crews were well aware that winds can change quickly.

"We really don't expect the fire to really come any closer than it has with the fire lines that have been cut," he said. "We're pretty optimistic."

The 37,101-acre Chimney fire was about 2 miles east of the castle Tuesday morning, said Capt. Lucas Spelman of the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection. Firefighters have multiple fire lines to protect the estate, he said.

The blaze has been moving north, away from the castle, fire officials said. Still, Spelman said, the winds have been erratic and were expected to shift on Tuesday.

The fire has destroyed 52 structures and damaged seven more, according to Cal Fire. Another 1,896 are threatened, including homes.

Crews over the weekend slowed the fire's advance toward Hearst castle by concentrating firefighters and engines in the area between the castle and the fire's edge. Though the threat has lessened, firefighters remain at the site and "will continue to keep the fire at bay from the Hearst Castle," said Kenichi Haskett, a Cal Fire spokesman.

Low humidity and “erratic wind behavior” have caused the Chimney fire to behave unpredictably, Haskett said.

Evacuation orders have been given for several small communities in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, near Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio.

The evacuations affect 2,448 people, according to Cal Fire. The fire was being fought by 3,813 firefighters.

Last week, crews thought they had gained the upper hand on the Chimney fire, which started Aug. 13 near Running Deer and Chimney Rock roads south of Lake Nacimiento. But the fire exploded over the weekend, said Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire spokesman.

"It was about 33% contained on Friday, but that's when the winds picked up and really pushed this fire, advancing it to the north" and forcing new evacuations, Berlant said on Periscope. On Tuesday, the fire was just 35% contained.

Haskett said firefighters are working 24-hour shifts, protecting the communities threatened by the fire.

"That's why it's imperative that people evacuate when we issue evacuation orders so firefighters can be in there working," he said.

"It's not like going down the street in Los Angeles," he added. "These are remote, windy, steep, curvy, narrow roads; we're dealing with areas that take time to get into and out of."

The Chimney fire has destroyed 52 structures, damaged seven more and continues to threaten 1,898, authorities said. The structures include homes, mixed-use properties and ranches, Haskett said.

Cal Fire has received numerous reports of scammers contacting the public, pretending to be fire agencies and asking for donations and volunteers, Haskett said.

"That isn't from us," he said.

Cal Fire has its own system for obtaining supplies and services that is managed by the state, he said.

Meanwhile, in San Bernardino County, the Blue Cut fire that destroyed about 105 homes last week was 89% contained. Firefighters were continuing to extinguish hot spots within the 37,020-acre fire's perimeter, but all evacuation orders have been lifted.

The wildfire now ranks among California's most destructive. It is the 20th most destructive in state history, Berlant said. In addition to the homes, the blaze destroyed 216 other buildings.

The 23,546-acre Rey fire burning in Santa Barbara County was 30% contained Monday. People will likely see smoke and falling ash in Santa Barbara, Montecito and Carpinteria over the next several days, fire officials said.

The Clayton fire in Lake County, which destroyed 300 structures and burned nearly 4,000 acres in and around the town of Lower Lake, was 96% contained. The 20,148-acre Cedar fire burning in Kern and Tulare counties was 5% contained.

The massive Soberanes fire, which has been burning near Big Sur since July 22, was 60% contained on Monday and had scorched 86,294 acres — an area more than twice as large as San Francisco.

The blaze — which was sparked by an abandoned, illegal campfire — has destroyed 57 buildings and 11 other structures and killed a bulldozer operator who was helping to fight it.

More than 2,100 firefighters continue to fight the Soberanes fire.

In addition to the six major wildfires in California, about 250 additional fires ignited last week, but firefighters were able to contain them to small acreage, Berlant said. So far this year, there have been more than 4,900 wildfires statewide, charring more than 417,000 acres, he said.

Twitter: @haileybranson

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UPDATES:

9:18 a.m., Aug. 23: This article was updated with new Chimney fire acreage and structure numbers.

7:55 p.m.: This article was updated with current statistics about the size and containment of fires burning across the state.

5 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

1:52 p.m.: This article was updated with information about canceled tours.

1:22 p.m.: This post was updated with information from Daniel Berlant.

11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with information from California State Parks.

This article was originally published at 9:50 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2016.

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