Wildfires in California strain state’s resources

More than 330 fires were still burning out of control Saturday.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A wildfire threatening thousands of homes in Southern California spread slowly through scenic canyonlands Saturday, straining resources as crews struggled to contain hundreds of other blazes around the state.

“The firefighters are stretched thin, they are exhausted,” and some have gone days without sleep, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited a command post in Santa Barbara County.

A slew of wildfires, most ignited by lightning two weeks ago, has burned more than 800 square miles of land throughout California. The blazes have destroyed at least 67 homes and other buildings and contributed to the death of a firefighter who suffered a heart attack while digging fire lines.

About 1,400 fires have been contained, but more than 330 still burned out of control Saturday.

Schwarzenegger said the state’s top priority was in the coastal region of Santa Barbara County, where nearly 2,700 homes were threatened by a four-day-old fire in the Los Padres National Forest that has consumed about 13 square miles.

Cooler, moist air Saturday morning kept the fire sluggish and helped firefighters trying to surround it, said Pat Wheatley, county spokeswoman. The fire was 24 percent contained, she said.

Crews hoped to make more progress before the return of late afternoon “sundowner” winds that on Friday evening sent flames racing up to homes.

Wheatley said about 4,000 homes were under a warning Saturday afternoon — a situation not as urgent as a mandatory evacuation — in four canyons at the northern end of the blaze.

The fire, which was burning in 15-foot-high, half-century-old chaparral, had the potential to roll through a hilly area of ranches, housing tracts and orchards between the town of Goleta and Santa Barbara.

“The advice is that you get prepared, that you get your belongings together and you stay very watchful,” Wheatley said.

Temperatures were expected to reach the high 80s, and smoke from the fire made for bad air quality.

Nearly 1,200 firefighters struggled to surround the blaze while a DC-10 air tanker and other aircraft dumped water and fire retardant along ridges and in steep canyons.

Investigators think the fire, which began Tuesday, was human-caused. The U.S. Forest Service on Saturday asked for help in determining who set it and whether it was sparked accidentally or intentionally.

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