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Slower Winds Aid Fire Crews: 11% CONTAINED AT BIG SUR BUT HEAT WAVE EXPECTED

July 7, 2008

By Joshua Molina, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Jul. 7–Fires near Big Sur and Santa Barbara on Sunday continued to ravage the wilderness, but crews made steady progress as winds slowed and temperatures dropped.

The Basin Complex fire near the scenic coastal town of Big Sur was 11 percent contained by Sunday night. The fire has consumed about 75,000 acres, destroyed 22 homes and caused widespread panic among residents who have been ordered to evacuate. The estimated containment date is July 31.

State Highway 1 was still closed from Palo Colorado Road to Lucia, and there were widespread evacuation orders in Monterey, Santa Barbara and Shasta counties. All state parks in the area were also closed.

As the fire raged about two miles away, Tom Birmingham, a cook at Big Sur’s famed Nepenthe restaurant, was in good spirits Sunday night as he prepared shrimp skewers, mixed green salad, ginger carrots and braised asparagus for about 10 people in the Big Sur area who chose to stay behind, despite the mandatory evacuation order.

“We’re used to having floods and famine and reigns of locusts,” he joked.

On the serious side, Birmingham said there have been some intense moments. “A lot of what we are feeling is concern for our friends and family,” he said. “Unfortunately we cannot help them because the incident command team has decided we can’t go on Highway 1.”

More than 20,000 firefighters across the state on Sunday worked furiously to douse the flames and clear vegetation before temperatures climb

later in the week. Forecasters warn that the mercury could reach triple digits in many parts of California.

Crews were helped by a Martin Mars Water Scooping Sea Plane bomber from Canada, with a capacity of 7,200 gallons.

Firefighters were able to prevent the blaze from burning toward the Palo Colorado and Carmel Valley areas, which were under only voluntary evacuation orders.

Big Sur residents were still facing mandatory evacuation orders, authorities said. It has cost the state more than $22 million to fight the fire.

The Gap fire on the edge of Santa Barbara was burning perilously close to more than 4,000 homes, but crews Sunday were able to nearly contain the fire on the southern end. Firefighters were still struggling to navigate the northwest end of the fire because of heavy vegetation and steep terrain.

More than 1,100 firefighters were battling that blaze, which has cast huge clouds of smoke over the upscale beach community. The cost to fight the fire has reached $6.2 million.

The Gap fire had consumed 9,920 acres and was 30 percent contained as of Sunday night.

The Big Sur and Gap fires have stretched resources thin.

“Both of these fires are of higher priority because of the potential of loss of homes and the risk of life and property,” said Jennifer Gray, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, in Goleta, north of Santa Barbara. Across the state, more than 300 fires were still burning after lightning strikes June 20 ignited a frenzy of flames. Crews have contained more than 1,400 fires.

Throughout California, nearly 600,000 acres have been scorched, about 40 homes lost, and 10,000 homes and 2,100 businesses and buildings threatened.

Communities in disarray near the Big Sur fire have turned to the Internet to share personal stories, dispel rumors about looting and tip their hats to firefighters knocking down the flames.

“There are many of us who are out of work, out of home, and out of luck,” wrote blogger Tara Wings, a Palo Colorado Canyon resident. “For everyone in Big Sur and the canyon, my heart is with all of you!”

Contact Joshua Molina at jmolina@mercurynews.com or (408) 275-2002

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