More help coming for crews battling fires

DAVENPORT, Calif. (AP) — California deployed more fire crews across the state Friday to gain control of growing wildfires that have forced hundreds of people to flee their homes.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Lockheed Fire has prompted officials to issue mandatory evacuation orders for about 2,400 people in the mountain communities of Swanton and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz County.

The blaze, which started Wednesday night, blackened 6.5 square miles of remote wilderness and was only about 5 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

The fire, about 10 miles north of the coastal city of Santa Cruz, has damaged only two small structures but was threatening more than 1,000 other homes and buildings. There have been no reports of injuries. The cause is under investigation.

Six helicopters and six fixed-wing aircraft were expected to join the firefighting effort, along with an additional 300 firefighters to help the roughly 700 already on the scene.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi said he would declare a state of emergency for Santa Cruz County as a step toward getting federal assistance for local governments and private property owners.

Garamendi was acting at the request of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was out of state attending the funeral of his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver.

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. “As it comes toward us, we’ll put hose lines down, dig a line and try to push the fire back. That’s all we can do right now.”

Smoke plumes extended over 50 miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey, but winds were blowing the smoke out toward the Pacific Ocean, said Richard Stedman, director of the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District. Officials were monitoring air quality, but do not believe it has reached unhealthy levels.

Farther down the coast, more than 1,800 firefighters were battling a wildfire around Los Padres National Forest that had grown to nearly 105 square miles, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Valerie Baca.

More than 230 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.