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Abandoned, illegal campfire blamed for fatal Soberanes fire in Monterey County

Jeff Turpin hikes up a hillside with a chain saw Saturday while cutting a fire break for the Soberanes fire.
(David Royal / Monterey County Herald)

An abandoned, illegal campfire sparked the Soberanes fire that has scorched more than 67-square miles of Monterey County and killed one person, state fire officials announced Tuesday.

The campfire was about 2-feet by 2-feet and burning away from official hiking trails and campsites when it triggered the larger blaze a few miles east of Highway 1 north of Soberanes Creek Trail July 22, an investigator with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

Authorities are still searching for the person or persons who started the campfire.

The wildfire fire had burned 44,300 acres and was 25% contained Tuesday, Cal Fire said. It has destroyed 57 homes and burned down or damaged 15 other buildings, the agency said.

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Just over a quarter of the fire is in the Monterey Ranger District of Los Padres National Forest, and about 28,000 acres were burning in state-controlled land, including state parks and private property, Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy said.

The wildfire killed Robert Reagan III, a bulldozer operator called in July 26 to help battle the fire. At some point, he suffered fatal injuries in a remote area on the southeast end of the fire on state parkland in Carmel, authorities said.

Reagan, 35, was a Fresno County resident and the father of two young girls, the Monterey Herald reported.

The blaze has been “unusually active” at night, hampering the firefight, Milloy told The Times.

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“Most fires, we get a little bit of moisture recovery and humidity at night, but, unfortunately, that has not been the case on this entire fire so far, so we haven’t had that slower fire growth,” Milloy said.

Humidity as low as 5% has been recorded at night, which is “incredibly low,” he said. The fire is burning in mountainous regions with peaks up to 4,000 feet high, where the marine layer has had little effect in cooling things down, he said.

Firefighters are working in “pretty extreme, steep terrain,” which has limited much of the battle to ridge-top firefighting, Milloy said.

Crews also have been challenged by erratic, shifting winds.

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More than 5,500 firefighters were battling the blaze, which has burned an area larger than the city of San Francisco.

The fire has prompted hundreds of evacuations. Numerous state parks along the Central Coast are expected to be closed through Aug. 6, as well as all trails and roads into the Monterey Ranger District of Los Padres National Forest.

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Flames have encroached on illegal marijuana-growing operations and have forced rescues. On July 25, two people were tending to marijuana plants when they became trapped by flames. They were found by Monterey County sheriff’s deputies and all 900 marijuana plants were destroyed by the fire.

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The next day, firefighters rescued eight men who had been lost for six days and were surrounded by flames while working on an illegal marijuana crop, the Monterey Herald reported. Cal Fire officials said the men were not injured.

Meanwhile, crews have made good progress battling the 2,185-acre Goose fire south of Prather in Fresno County, according to Cal Fire. That blaze began Saturday afternoon off Gooseberry Lane and Morgan Canyon and had destroyed three homes.

By Tuesday night, the Goose fire was 60% contained and 1,625 firefighters were on scene.

As with many of the recent California wildfires, excessive heat, steep terrain and drought-dried vegetation have also been factors in fighting the Goose fire, which is burning in grass and oak woodlands, authorities said.

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In Los Angeles County, more than 500 firefighters continued to reinforce fire lines and mop up hot spots from the Sand fire in the Angeles National Forest near Santa Clarita. Though hot spots remained by the fire line on the southeast side over the weekend, the fire was not expected to spread, authorities said.

Temporary road closures were expected intermittently along Sand Canyon, Placerita Canyon and Little Tujunga Canyon roads in the fire-affected areas this week as utility crews repair power lines.

The Sand fire, which burned 41,432 acres and has been blamed for the death of one man, was 98% contained.

Staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

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Joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

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9:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional figures about the growth and containment of the Soberanes and Goose fires.

This article was originally published at 3:40 p.m.


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