Thousands evacuated in Californian forest blazes

A wildfire threatening hundreds of homes in Southern California spread slowly through scenic canyonlands Saturday, straining resources as crews struggled to contain hundreds of other blazes around the state.

"The firefighters are stretched thin, they are exhausted," and some have gone days without sleep, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited a command post in Santa Barbara County.

A slew of wildfires, most ignited by lightning two weeks ago, has burned more than 800 square miles of land throughout California. The blazes have destroyed at least 67 homes and other buildings and contributed to the death of a firefighter who suffered a heart attack while digging fire lines.

About 1,400 fires have been contained, but more than 330 still burned out of control Saturday.

Schwarzenegger said California's top priority was in the coastal region of Santa Barbara County, where nearly 2,700 homes were threatened by a four-day-old fire in the Los Padres National Forest that has consumed about 13 square miles.

Cooler, moist air yesterday morning kept the fire sluggish and helped firefighters trying to surround it, said Pat Wheatley, county spokeswoman. The fire was 24 percent contained, she said.

Wheatley said 2,663 homes remained under mandatory evacuation and people in another 1,400 were warned to be ready to flee if the flames gathered speed.

The fire, which was burning in 15-foot-high, half-century-old chaparral, had the potential to roll through a hilly area of ranches, housing tracts and orchards between the town of Goleta and Santa Barbara.

Temperatures were expected to reach the high 80s, and the smoke from the fire made for bad air quality.

Nearly 1,200 firefighters struggled to surround the blaze while a DC-10 air tanker and other aircraft dumped water and fire retardant along ridges and in steep canyons.

Investigators think the fire, which began Tuesday, was human-caused. The US Forest Service on Saturday asked for public help in determining who set it and whether it was sparked accidentally or on purpose.

Meanwhile, cooler weather helped crews attacking a two-week-old blaze that has destroyed 20 homes in Big Sur, at the northern end of the Los Padres forest.

The fire, which had blackened 107 square miles, was only 5 percent contained, but morning fog that moved in from the sea helped prevent it from advancing on Big Sur's famed restaurants and hotels.

"We're gaining ground, but we're nowhere near being done," said Gregg DeNitto, a spokesman for the US Forest Service. "There's still a lot of potential out there. The fire has been less active the last couple of days. We've had favorable weather; they are taking every opportunity to get some line on it."

But the weather was expected to become hotter and drier over the next couple of days, he said, with winds and temperatures rising and humidity dropping.

"The fire still has the potential for movement and the potential to get out of our containment lines," he said.