Wildfires spread as California declares emergency

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The Independent US

Strong winds are spreading multiple wildfires across parched parts of California as officials worry the gusts could ignite more blazes and force more evacuations in areas already under a state of emergency.

The Lockheed Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains has blackened close to 8 square miles of remote wilderness and prompted mandatory evacuations of the mountain communities of Swanton and Bonny Doon, which have about 2,400 residents and several wineries.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi declared a state of emergency Friday for Santa Cruz County. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has returned to California after attending the Massachusetts funeral of his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, is scheduled to visit the fire zone today.

The fire sent huge plumes of smoke across Monterey Bay and damaged two small structures. It also was threatening more than 1,000 homes and buildings but no injuries have been reported. The cause is under investigation.

Officials said yesterday that the fire was moving toward more populated areas around Highway 9.

"The winds are going in so many different directions at the same time ... We can't build a line big enough," said Rick Hutchinson, a CalFire incident commander. "Unfortunately, if it does advance far enough to the southeast, it could ultimately lead to an evacuation of the Highway 9 area."

The blaze started Wednesday about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz. A change in winds shifted the fire away from Bonny Doon but closer to Swanton, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. By Friday evening, it was 15 per cent contained, he added.

The steep, rugged terrain and dense vegetation have made it difficult to contain the blaze, so firefighters are focused on keeping flames away from homes, said Jim Stunkel, a battalion chief from San Jose.

"As the brush ignites, it's like a fireworks explosion, and the sparks rain down where the ranch houses are," he said.

About 250 homes and ranches in canyons and ridges near a wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest were also under evacuation orders. That week-old fire has grown to nearly 108 square miles, said US Forest Service spokeswoman Maeton Freel.

In Yuba County north of Sacramento, a wildfire yesterday destroyed one home, forced the evacuation of about 60 residences and knocked out power in the Sierra foothills town of Dobbins, according to CalFire spokeswoman Joann Cartoscelli.

In Alameda County, more than 300 firefighters were struggling to control a wind-driven grass fire that had grown to about 16 square miles near Tracy, said Aisha Knowles, a county fire department spokeswoman. The Corral Fire was not threatening any structures but was moving toward the juncture of Interstate 5 and Interstate 580, where officials worried it could affect visibility and traffic.

In far northern California, Trinity County District Attorney Michael Harper has charged 60-year-old Brenda Eitzen of Los Molinos with two felonies and two misdemeanors alleging she negligently sparked a blaze by throwing away a lit cigarette Wednesday. The charges could bring a maximum four-year prison term. The Coffin Fire was expected to be contained today.