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No End In Sight For Stubborn Calif. Fires

More than a thousand wildfires - including a massive, stubborn blaze in the Big Sur region - were burning early Monday in Northern California and there was no relief in sight for weary firefighters.

"What a lot of people don't realize is the terrain out here is treacherous," CBS News meteorologist Dave Price reports from Big Sur. "It's not like you are fighting a fire in a city or a housing complex where you just drive up and spray the building with a hose."

Price reports that the major priorities for fire officials right now are containment, structure protection and air quality, which he says is "simply awful" in Northern California.

"Places like San Francisco International Airport are seeing delays from the smoke and the fog and there is so sign that these problems are going away anytime soon," reports Price. "Firefighters are giving this a valiant effort, it's just going to be a very long stretch."

Fire crews inched closer to getting some of the largest of 1,420 blazes surrounded, according to the state Office of Emergency Services. Some 364,600 acres - or almost 570 square miles - have burned.

But a "red flag warning" - meaning the most extreme fire danger - was still in effect for Northern California until 8 a.m. EDT Monday. And the weather in the coming days and months isn't expected to help efforts.

Lower-than-average rainfall and record levels of parched vegetation likely mean a long, fiery summer throughout northern California, according to the Forest Service's state fire outlook released last week.

The fires burning now were mostly sparked by lightning storms that were unusually intense for so early in the season. But summer storms would probably be even fiercer, according to the Forest Service.

"Our most widespread and/or critical lightning events often occur in late July or August, and we have no reason to deviate from that," the agency's report said.

The blazes have destroyed more than 50 buildings, said Gregory Renick, state emergency services spokesman. More than 19,500 firefighters are battling the blazes and 926 helicopters have been used.

A lightning-sparked wildfire in the Big Sur region of the Los Padres National Forest has burned 42 square miles and destroyed 16 homes. The blaze, which was only 3 percent contained late Sunday, has forced the closure of a 12-mile stretch of coastal Highway 1 and driven away visitors at the peak of the tourist season.

Price reports that more than 3,000 acres have burned since Sunday at that one fire site.

"We've adopted a big picture strategy on this fire," U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrick explained to Price, "trying to get out ahead of it, learning from the lessons of the past."

He knelt down and drew a diagram in the dusty earth to show how the firefighters are digging out a containment line ahead of the fire and will burn out the dry brush between the fire and the line.

"As the fire comes in, eventually it will hit it and…," Dietrick paused for just a moment before tapping his hand into the ditch he'd scratched out in the dirt, "we'll stay at the containment line."

Air quality districts from Bakersfield to Redding issued health advisories through the weekend, urging residents to stay indoors to limit exposure to the smoky air.

Price reports that air quality warnings have now been issued for an area covering 450 miles. With some pollution readings reaching as high as 10 times the federal standard, officials are warning residents to stay inside.

"We would recommend that people do stay indoors and not exercise under these conditions," says Linda Smith of the California Air Resources Board.

The thick smoke has made it not only difficult to breathe in Northern California, but also difficult to see.

"Many of the landmarks in the Bay area just disappeared," reports CBS News affiliate KPIX reporter Simon Perez from a helicopter, "no Alcatraz, no San Francisco, no Bay Bridge."

A fire in the Piute Mountain area has burned more than 1,000 acres, causing some small communities to be evacuated, most vacation homes, The Bakersfield Californian reported Monday.

On Saturday, President Bush issued an emergency declaration for California and ordered federal agencies to assist in firefighting efforts.

But California emergency officials said state and local governments would also need federal financing to cover the costs of fighting so many fires this early in the year.

Federal aid now includes four Marine Corps helicopters, remote sensing of the fires by NASA, federal firefighters, and the activation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Arizona, residents of a remote mountain community north of Phoenix were evacuated Sunday as a 500-acre wildfire moved toward town, but a late afternoon wind shift spared all but one structure in Crown King. Flames came within a mile of town.

The surrounding ponderosa pine forest has a large number of dead trees, victims of a bark beetle infestation that has killed millions of trees across the West in recent years. About 120 people were evacuated from the town of about 400 scattered homes and summer cabins, said Debbie Maneely, a spokeswoman for the Prescott National Forest.