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California declares emergency as wildfires spread
By BROOKE DONALD
The Associated Press
Saturday, August 15, 2009 12:10 AM
DAVENPORT, Calif. -- Fire crews fanned out Friday across a parched California where wind-whipped wildfires have forced hundreds of people to flee their homes and led to an emergency declaration in Santa Cruz County.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Lockheed Fire 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.
Chris Sokoloff, 40, an electrician who moved to Bonny Doon from Portland, Ore., a week ago, spent the night at an evacuation center in Santa Cruz.
"It's really hit home this morning, seeing all the ash on the vehicles," Sokoloff said. "I got a big red hockey bag and that's all I got right now."
Lt. Gov. John Garamendi declared a state of emergency for Santa Cruz County as a step toward getting federal assistance for local governments and private property owners.
"We're entering the height of fire season in California. We need to prepare," he said in Davenport, a coastal town near the Lockheed Fire.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was out of state attending the funeral of his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, is scheduled to visit the fire zone for a briefing Saturday morning.
The blaze started Wednesday about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz. By Friday evening, it was 15 percent contained, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berland. A change in winds has shifted the fire away from Bonny Doon, but a little closer to Swanton, he said.
Berland credited Bonny Doon residents with putting up a "defensible space" by clearing brush and debris from around their homes.
The fire sent huge plumes of smoke across Monterey Bay. It damaged two small structures and was threatening more than 1,000 homes and buildings. There have been no reports of injuries. The cause is under investigation.
The steep, rugged terrain and dense vegetation has 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.
The fire was moving toward Bonny Doon and more populated areas around Highway 9. As winds picked up Friday afternoon, officials worried the gusts could ignite more fires and force more evacuations.
"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."
At the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville, animal care workers were assisting more than 100 animals rescued from the fire zone, including goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, alpacas, llamas and horses.
Hannah Good, a veterinarian who lives in Bonny Doon with her partner and two children, said workers had helped her evacuate her birds, cats, donkey, pony and dog.
"It was quite a scramble getting the animals and our family out of there," Good said. "Once I smelled the smoke, I knew we had problems."
Farther down the coast, about 2,000 firefighters battled a wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest that grew to nearly 108 square miles, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Maeton Freel.
About 250 homes and ranches in canyons and ridges near the La Brea Fire were under evacuation orders as the week-old blaze kept growing in northern Santa Barbara County.
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 spokeswoman for the Alameda County Fire Department.
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. It was about 20 percent contained, Knowles said.
In Yuba County north of Sacramento, two separate wildfires began Friday. The blazes blackened a combined 1,000 acres near Lake Francis, 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. KOLO-TV in Nevada reported that smoke from the blaze was visible as far as Reno.
In far northern California, firefighters lifted evacuation orders issued accompanying a nearly two-square-mile fire burning near Lewiston, about 200 miles north of Sacramento. The Coffin Fire was 75 percent contained, with containment expected Saturday.
Trinity County District Attorney Michael Harper charged 60-year-old Brenda Eitzen of Los Molinos with two felonies and two misdemeanors alleging she negligently sparked the blaze by throwing away a lit cigarette Wednesday. The charges could bring a maximum four-year prison term.
Eitzen, who has no criminal history, was staying at a drug rehabilitation shelter at the time of the fire, Harper said.
To the east, 10 rural homes remained evacuated as wind spread a fire in steep terrain near Burney. Firefighters were using bulldozers to cut fire lines around the nearly 11-square-mile blaze about 200 miles north of Sacramento.
Associated Press Writers Terence Chea in San Francisco, Don Thompson in
Sacramento, Jared Grigsby in Santa Cruz and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles
contributed to this report. © ;2009 ;The Associated Press
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