California emergency grows as wildfires spread south

July 4th, 2008 - 8:10 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger
San Francisco, July 4 (DPA) California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger extended California’s state of emergency Thursday, declaring disaster status in Santa Barbara county where a wildfire threatened the coastal community of Goleta. The Gap Fire has burned some 970 hectares and the order made Santa Barbara the most southern of the 11 counties to be declared a disaster area as a spate of wildfires have ripped through the state in the past two weeks.

According to the state fire fighting agency Cal Fire 1,781 fires have burned in California since the freak lighting storms on June 20, burning over 2,000 square kilometers. Over 20,000 personnel were fighting the flames, backed by 1,500 fire trucks and more than 100 aircraft dropping water.

The most serious blaze has shut down the tourist town of Big Sur, leading authorities to order the evacuation of one of the most scenic areas on the state’s Pacific coastline.

The Basin Complex fire jumped a fire-line that firefighters had hoped would protect the town, and led to the closure of a 40 km stretch of the Pacific Coast highway.

The blaze has burnt over 212 square kilometers and burnt 16 homes since it was started by lightning on June 21. It is currently only about three percent contained as nearly 1,400 firefighters work to contain the blaze.

Most of the fires are in remote regions and are being left to burn, as fire managers focus their resources on areas close to human habitation.

The fires are causing huge concern, coming early in the season due to low rainfall over the winter and spring, which left brush tinder dry at least two months ahead of schedule.

California’s worst fire months are usually September and October, when hot, dry inland winds blow across the south of the state. Last year, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed by the late summer fires, causing more than $3 billion in damage.

US President George W. Bush declared a federal state of emergency over the weekend, ordering federal authorities including the US Marines and FEMA to help California’s state effort. California plans to ask the federal government to help defray the cost of fighting the fires.

An additional concern is Friday’s Fourth of July celebrations of US Independence Day, which traditionally is marked by fireworks. Authorities have banned the use of fireworks because of the potential for igniting new blazes and intend to enforce the ban with extra vigilance.

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