Calif. firefighters gain ground

Cool, damp weather early Saturday helped crews gain ground on the huge wildfire that wiped out a coastal retreat's holiday tourist trade, allowing some personnel and gear to be shifted to a growing blaze farther south

Almost 2,000 firefighters were trying to stem the advance of the two-week-old blaze in Big Sur that has blackened more than 107 square miles in the northern end of the Los Padres National Forest and destroyed 20 homes.

At the southern end of the national forest, officials extended a mandatory evacuation order to cover 5,000 homes in and around the city of Goleta, while residents of 1,400 other homes were warned to be ready to leave on short notice, said Santa Barbara County spokesman Jim McClure.

The amount of land blackened by the Santa Barbara County fire grew to 13 square miles, up from more than 10 square miles Friday, but firefighting officials said it was nearly one-quarter contained, up from 14 percent late Friday.

In his weekly radio address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited the fires in promoting his budget plan to charge the average homeowner $12 a year to pay for emergency services.

“We no longer have a fire season that starts in the summer and runs through the fall. Because of the extreme dry conditions, we are now seeing fires as early as February that last all year,” said Schwarzenegger, who planned to visit a command center near Goleta on Saturday.

Crews battling the Big Sur fire got an assist early Saturday from marine fog and lower temperatures. They had set backfires late into Friday night in an effort to protect properties along the scenic Highway 1 corridor, which firefighters were using as a fire break.

“We're gaining ground, but we're nowhere near being done,” said Gregg DeNitto, a spokesman for the U.S. 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.”

However, the weather is expected to worsen over the next couple of days, he said, with wind and temperatures rising and humidity dropping.

“The fire still has the potential for movement and the potential to get out of our containment lines,” DeNitto said.