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Big Sur Braces For Raging Calif. Wildfires

Firefighters bulked up their defenses Friday against a wildfire that threatened parts of this storied tourist town and prepared for more lightning strikes that could ignite new fires across Northern California.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked President Bush on Friday for a federal emergency declaration to free up more aid, saying the fires this season had burned 265,000 acres, or more than 400 square miles.

The Los Angeles Times reports approximately 1,100 fires burned in the region between San Jose and the Oregon border after thunderstorms sparked the blaze seven days ago. The Los Padres National Forest lost about 134 square miles to the burning of two fires, moving as close as one mile away from the legendary and historic Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park

Thousands remain evacuated from their homes as firefighters work to prevent widespread property damage, the Los Angeles Times reports. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports 18 homes have been destroyed in the last week. Six major highways also remain closed in the area.

Firefighters rushed to protect about 575 threatened homes and historic structures in the Big Sur area. They allowed the fire to rage nearly unchecked through steep mountain forests, where flames torched massive redwoods and sent them toppling.

"This is not going away anytime soon," said Mark Savage, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Low humidity did little to slow the fire overnight, and noticeably hotter weather was forecast for Friday afternoon.

Overnight, firefighters reinforced their fire lines near homes and businesses in the area, moving in heavy engines and more personnel, said Curtis Vincent, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest.

The blaze was just 3 percent contained, but at least it was growing parallel to the coast - not toward inhabited areas, he said Friday.

The Esalen Institute, a retreat known for its natural hot springs, did not appear immediately threatened, but it canceled workshops through the July 4 weekend because of falling ash and poor air quality.

The hundreds of smaller fires in remote Northern California burned primarily in Humboldt, Shasta and Trinity counties. No people appeared immediately in jeopardy, though there are homes scattered through the forest areas, he said.

The fire count had gone up from 800 to nearly 1,100 because smoky air had hampered efforts to track all the blazes, said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"That's part of our problem - all of Northern California has been socked in for days, and aircraft haven't been able to see the ground," Kirchner said. Firefighters on the ground have provided most of the intelligence on new fires, he added.

Some 11,000 firefighters from 41 states are battling the blazes. Authorities put the firefighters on notice that they might be abruptly deployed to new fires expected to spring up with new lightning storms already under way.

"Our No. 1 priority is we want to stop any new, small fires," Kirchner said.

The fire has destroyed 16 homes and two outbuildings since breaking out Saturday, and officials have issued voluntary evacuation notices to residents in 75 homes along a ridge threatened by the blaze.

Dutch travelers Joost Ueberbach, 28, and Gemma Arts, 27, had wanted to drive through Big Sur on their way to Los Angeles from San Francisco when they ran into the roadblock Thursday.

"We knew there was a fire somewhere, but we didn't know the road was blocked," Ueberbach said. "We had hoped to see the nice views of the coastline. I guess it's just bad luck."

A popular area along the towering cliffs of the central California coast, Big Sur is also a destination for generations of American writers and artists.

Fire crews on Thursday beat back flames that threatened a small roadside library named after "Tropic of Cancer" author Henry Miller, who lived in Big Sur for many years.

Just down the road, firefighters maintained fire lines and doused flames near the home of Hal Newell, who'd been forced to flee five days earlier.

"I feel real glad to still have a place to live," said Newell, who has lived in Big Sur since he was born in 1938.

Fire crews from 41 states were helping battle the blazes that are darkening skies over the San Francisco Bay area and Central Valley. The threat of fire has already led communities across Northern California to cancel plans for Fourth of July fireworks displays.

In central New Mexico, firefighters worked through most of the night to make sure a wildfire that has charred some 3,500 acres in the Manzano Mountains didn't make any pushes to the south.

The lightning-caused fire was just 10 percent contained as of Friday morning, and some 400 people remained out of their homes near Tajique, a town southeast of Albuquerque.