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Famed Big Sur parks shut as California wildfire rages

Published 27/07/2016

A hillside erupts in flame as a wildfire burns in Placerita Canyon in Santa Clarita (AP)
A hillside erupts in flame as a wildfire burns in Placerita Canyon in Santa Clarita (AP)
A helicopter makes a drop on a wildfire near Placerita Canyon Road in Santa Clarita (AP)

California's signature parks along the Big Sur coastline that draw thousands of daily visitors have been shut down as one of the state's two major wildfires threatened the scenic region at the height of the summer tourist season.

Acting governor Tom Torlakson, substituting for governor Jerry Brown, who is at the Democratic National Convention with other top state officials, declared a state of emergency for the fire early on Wednesday. The move frees up funding and relaxes regulations to help with the firefight and the recovery.

To the south, firefighters made progress containing a huge blaze in mountains outside Los Angeles, allowing authorities to let most of 20,000 people evacuated over the weekend to return home.

In Wyoming, a large backcountry wildfire in the Shoshone National Forest put about 290 homes and guest ranches at risk.

The Big Sur fire threatened a long stretch of pristine, forested mountains hugging the coast and sent smoke billowing over the famed Pacific Coast Highway, which remained open with few if any flames visible to motorists, but a risk that the blaze could reach beloved campgrounds, lodges and redwoods near the shore.

"It is folly to predict where this fire will go," said California state parks spokesman Dennis Weber.

The Los Angeles-area fire has destroyed 18 homes since it started and over the weekend authorities discovered a burned body in a car, identified on Tuesday as a man who refused to be evacuated.

A woman living in the house Robert Bresnick, 67, was visiting left with firefighters but he went back inside. His body was found about 20 minutes later on Saturday in the car after flames tore through the neighbourhood, said Los Angeles County coroner's assistant Ed Winter.

The Big Sur closures were put into place for parks that draw 7,500 visitors daily from around the world for their dramatic vistas of ocean and mountains. Campgrounds were closed because of the dangers smoke could pose to visitors but could reopen soon if the blaze is held back by firefighters, Mr Weber said.

Jim Newby, a Phoenix-area tourist, drove along the Pacific Coast Highway with his family and was disappointed at the smoke.

"We wanted to see more of the ocean," he said. "We didn't see a whole lot of it unfortunately, and it's a beautiful, beautiful stretch."

The park shutdowns came as a fire that started on Friday just north of Big Sur grew on Tuesday to 30 square miles but was just 10% contained. Twenty homes have burned in the zone, residents of 300 more were ordered to evacuate and more than 2,000 firefighters were trying to douse the blaze.

The Wyoming fire in a remote region burned nearly 11 square miles and forced the evacuations of 900 people but no homes had burned by Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.

In neighbouring Bridger-Teton National Forest, a fire grew to 26 square miles and was partially contained. Two smaller fires were burning in the Bighorn National Forest.

In Southern California, the fire in rugged wilderness between the northern edge of Los Angeles and the suburban city of Santa Clarita grew to 58 and a half square miles.

But authorities said on Tuesday they had managed to contain 25% of the area, meaning the flames there had been isolated and were not expected to spread. They warned, however, that the fire was still extremely dangerous and would take time to put out.

"We're not really out of the woods," said US Forest Service spokesman Justin Correll. "We're not ready to relax. There's still a lot of firefighting to do."

The 3,000 firefighters faced another day of temperatures in the 90s to low 100s Fahrenheit as they fought the fire, aided by fleets aircraft dropping retardant and water and hundreds of fire engines.

Some neighbourhoods in Santa Clarita, with a population of about 200,000, remained off-limits because of the fire. But most evacuations ordered for about 10,000 homes with an estimated 20,000 residents were lifted.

Lane Leavitt, who trains stunt actors and specialises in setting people on fire for movies and television, was relieved when he returned home on Monday evening to find his home and business fully intact.

"It's a miracle everything was there," he said from his home opposite a ranch used to make films where the sets were incinerated.

Friends and clients from around the world called and texted Mr Leavitt, worried that he had lost everything after he abandoned the house with fire burning on two sides of the property.

He texted back: "We're still standing."

AP

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