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Experts Predict Four More Months Of Fires

Hundreds of wildfires burned across central and northern California for a second week Monday, an explosive start to a fire season likely to last well into October as dry, hot weather, rough terrain and lightning storms complicate efforts to bring blazes under control.

The number of fires forced firefighting officials to strategically choose which blazes to fight, while leaving some others to burn for weeks or months.

"It's like eating an elephant - you've got to eat it one bite at a time," said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

In some rugged, remote areas, it will not be possible to attack all of the blazes, because the risk to firefighters is too great, he said.

"We have to take a step back, figure out where the best place is to make a stand and sometimes wait for the fire to come to us in those situations," he said.

In difficult to reach, hilly terrain on California's Central Coast one of the largest fires remains stubbornly out of control, reports CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone. Nearly 40,000 acres have been consumed and this fire is only three percent contained. It burned to the very edges of Big Sur's tourist attractions.

"Right behind me just at the top of this knoll about 300 or 400 feet above the highway we had 30-foot high flames," said Kirk Gafill.

At Gafill's restaurant, business has fallen by 80 percent at the start of the busy summer season.

"The timing you know could never be good for something like this, but this is about the worst possible timing," he said.

Long-running wildfires are not unusual in California. It was four months before firefighters controlled a blaze that blackened more than 240,000 acres of Santa Barbara County backcountry last year.

What is extraordinary this year is the number of fires burning at the same time, Kirchner said. The weekend of June 21, some 1,200 fires were burning - a figure Forest Service officials said appeared to be an all-time record in California.

The Forest Service put the figure at about 600 on Monday. It attributed the gains to its tactic of attacking small fires first, and to significant assistance from other states and from Canada.

State officials, however, counted more than 1,000 ongoing blazes. The source of the discrepancy was apparently a different counting method.

Also unusual, Kirchner said, was that there have been no significant injuries to civilians or firefighters even though some 570 square miles have burned in California this season, though there were a few minor injuries as harsh terrain hampered firefighters' efforts to battle a blaze in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

"It is extremely steep, very rugged territory, and there are a lot of injuries, twisting ankles, slipping on hills," Kirchner said. Burning debris is "rolling downhill right past your containment line. It's very complicated, difficult, dirty firefighting work."

Even so, firefighters managed to increase their containment of that 30,000-acre fire from 15 to 23 percent.

Over the weekend, the federal government sent eight C-130 firefighting aircraft to help douse California flames. The giant tankers can drop nearly 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, when the pilots can see. But heavy smoke across the state has left much of the job to firefighters on the ground, Blackstone reports.

Josh White, a Butte County firefighter, says lighting back fires, depriving the larger fire of material to burn, has been paying off.

"When we do that, we decide where the fire is going," White explained. "Normally it's mother nature at the controls."

But Mother Nature is responsible for the unusually dry conditions that have brought an early and dangerous start to this fire season.

Two wildfires choked parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills, sending up plumes of smoke that darkened patches of the 100-mile stretch between Sacramento and Reno.

The fires in the Tahoe National Forest blanketed portions of the Interstate 80 corridor linking the two cities and the foothill communities in between where tens of thousands of people live.

Along the Pacific, fire officials said fog and humidity helped them gain ground against a blaze that was just 3 percent contained in the storied town of Big Sur. John Heil, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said it had blackened about 39,600 acres.

Firefighters poured personnel and equipment into the area to ensure the fire did not reach the town, said John Ahlman, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest.

Heil said there was a possibility of rain in the far northern part of the state this week. But the changing weather pattern could also bring new lightning and high winds, which could touch off new blazes and fan the current ones, he said.

Even a modest rain storm - highly unusual in July - would do little to diminish the likelihood of a long, tough fire season, Heil said.

"Unless it rains, and we get some really good rainfall, you can pretty much expect it to be here right through October," he said.