California firefighter crews battle wildfires in hot, windy weather

Inmate firefighters file off to construct a fire break while battling the Soberanes Fire in Carmel Highlands, California, Inmate firefighters file off to construct a fire break while battling the Soberanes Fire in Carmel Highlands, California, U.S. July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Noah Berger

(Reuters) – Crews battling a deadly wildfire in rugged drought-stricken terrain north of Los Angeles on Wednesday face a second consecutive day of scorching weather and erratic winds that could hinder their efforts.

The National Weather Service forecast of near-triple-digit temperatures and 20 mph wind gusts for the area where the so-called Sand Fire, a wildfire that erupted 40 miles north of Los Angeles, has destroyed 18 homes and claimed one life in five days.

As of Tuesday night, some 3,000 firefighters hacked through dense brush and chaparral and had extended containment lines around 25 percent of the fire, which has charred 59 square miles since Friday, officials said.

The single death in the Sand Fire was identified on Tuesday as Robert Bresnick, 67, whose body was found Saturday inside a burned-out car parked in a driveway, said Ed Winter, assistant chief Los Angeles County coroner.

Winter said a friend Bresnick was visiting was forcibly removed by firefighters as flames closed in on them, but Bresnick insisted on staying put. He was last seen alive walking toward the car, apparently having changed his mind after it was too late.

About 300 miles to the north, a smaller fire raging since Friday between Big Sur and the scenic coastal town of Carmel-by-the-Sea continued to threaten some 1,650 properties after destroying 20 homes on Sunday. It remained 10 percent contained late on Tuesday, authorities said.

Some 2,300 firefighters were battling the blaze dubbed the Soberanes Fire, which has scorched nearly 20,000 acres since Friday, at the edge of the Los Padres National Forest, a state fire agency spokeswoman said.

The forecast in that area was expected to also reach near triple-digit temperatures and included erratic winds that could hamper firefighting efforts.

Acting California Governor Tom Torlakson, who is filling in for Jerry Brown while he is at the Democratic convention, declared on Tuesday a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Monterey counties where the fires are located.

The causes of both fires were under investigation, but they are among some 3,750 blazes large and small that have erupted across California since January. The higher-than-normal total has collectively scorched more than 200,000 acres, state fire officials said.

The biggest so far was last month’s Erskine Fire, which consumed 48,000 acres northeast of Bakersfield, killing two people and destroying about 250 structures.

By comparison, the 2003 Cedar Fire ranks as the biggest on record in the state, burning more than 273,000 acres and killing 15 people.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Michael Perry and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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