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California Firefighters Prepare to Combat More Hot Weather

July 8, 2008

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ An onslaught of hot, dry weather and gusty winds were expected to hit Northern California, an ominous development in fire country. But firefighters, who’ve spent two weeks battling the Basin Complex fire and digging wide firebreaks around it, say they’re ready.

“After two weeks of exhausting work, we’ve been able to connect the dots and have secure lines in place,” said Dave Morton, a fire safety officer for the U.S. Forest Service. “We secured Big Sur and I think we’ll be able to weather what hits us.”

Temperatures at Big Sur are expected to soar to the low 90s, a drastic change from Monday’s cool, foggy conditions that helped firefighters advance their firelines. The heat wave will bring temperatures in the high 90s to San Jose and triple digits to Morgan Hill, prompting cities to open air-conditioned rooms for residents to rest and state officials to call for voluntary energy conservation through Thursday.

San Jose reached a high of 95-degrees Monday. The days will get even hotter, peaking in the high 90s on Wednesday and Thursday, said forecaster Diana Henderson. The lows are expected to hover in the 60s. There’s not “a whole lot of relief at night,” she said. “That adds to the stress.”

Tension was high in the canyons and ridges of Palo Colorado _ just north of Highway 1′s historic Bixby Bridge _ where many residents along the nine-mile narrow roadway had their cars packed and ready in case of an evacuation.

“Today is the first day I’ve seen the glow of the fire this close,” said Laura Brannon, a school teacher who is sharing her tiny Palo Colorado cabin with her brother and five friends who were forced to flee their homes in Big Sur. “I’m hoping it’s almost over.”

Firefighters on Monday continued to douse hot spots in the Big Sur area and fell trees to prevent flare-ups. But fire officials say the worst is over around the Big Sur village and a timeline is being established to allow residents to return to their homes and businesses. The lightning-sparked fire was 18 percent contained Monday. It has burned an estimated 77,165 acres and destroyed 23 homes and another 17 outbuildings, primarily along Partington Ridge and Apple Pie Ridge about six miles south of the Big Sur Village.

Some 2,300 firefighters are assigned to the blaze, along with 185 fire engines and 18 helicopters.

The northwestern flank of the fire, however, which threatened a Boy Scout camp over the weekend, was moving slowly down into the Little Sur drainage on Monday. With hot weather conditions, it could make a run up the northern ridge, Morton said.

Fire crews will be ready, he said. On Monday afternoon, Morton stood on Coast Road, a dirt road on the north side of Bixby Bridge, and watched the helicopters dump buckets of sea water onto the northwestern section of fire line that was being back-burned in advance of the fire. The firebreak is at least 200 feet wide and should be enough to halt the oncoming blaze, he said.

Firefighters are constructing a contingency line to the north, just in case the fire plows through Palo Colorado and heads toward the Carmel Valley. At the southern tip of the fire, crews were expected to finish building a fireline Monday evening.

It wasn’t soon enough for three families of Polish tourists who rented three motor homes for a tour of the western states. They heard about the fire from their relatives in Poland, who were following the international story.

They were hoping to drive down the coast to Hearst Castle on Monday.

“We are really disappointed,” said MateuszBlaszczyk, 38.

Still, they wanted a taste of California’s famed highway, so they drove down a few miles and parked on the side of the highway, before the road closure. All 12 of them got out, set up a table, and had a picnic lunch overlooking the rugged coastline.

“Show me a better place,” he said.

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(San Jose Mercury News staff writers Matt Nauman and Kim Vo contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2008, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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