ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Nine Maryland Department of Natural Resources firefighters trained in battling wildfires are heading to California.
The nine are traveling to a federal park near Redding, California, where a timber and brush fire is threatening communication towers and power lines and could consume park cabins and historic buildings.
The team left from BWI Marshall Airport Friday morning and are expected to spend two weeks fighting a timber and brush fire in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
Four are from the Maryland Forest Service, three from the Wildlife and Heritage Service, and one each from the Maryland Park Service and the Maryland Conservation Corps. All are certified wildland firefighters.
Meanwhile, firefighters in California bolstered their defenses Friday against an expanding wildfire that threatened coastal homes in this storied tourist town, while bracing for fresh lightning strikes that could ignite new fires across Northern California.
Nearly 1,100 fires were burning just in the region from San Jose to the Oregon border, said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. That excluded the two gigantic blazes that have charred some 134 square miles in the Los Padres forest.
The fire closest to the legendary cliffs and funky getaways of Big Sur was about a mile from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at the heart of the region, said Curtis Vincent, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest.
The massive lightning-sparked wildfire marched toward the town of Big Sur on Thursday, while firefighters rushed to protect about 575 threatened homes and historic structures.
Overnight, firefighters reinforced their fire lines near homes and businesses in the area, moving in heavy engines and more personnel, Vincent said. The blaze remained just 3 percent contained, but it was growing parallel to the coast — not toward inhabited areas, he said.
The renowned Esalen Institute, a retreat known for its natural hot springs, did not appear immediately threatened, but it canceled workshops all the way through the July 4 weekend because of falling ash and poor air quality.
The nearly 1,100 fires in remote Northern California burned primarily in Humboldt, Shasta and Trinity counties, Kirchner said. No people appeared immediately in jeopardy, though there are homes scattered through the forest areas, he said.
The number of fires topped 1,000, up from 800 two days ago, because smoky air had hampered efforts to track all the blazes, Kirchner said.
"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. It is firefighters on the ground who 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.
Last weekend, nearly 8,000 lightning strikes sparked about 800 fires across Northern California. There were about 70 lightning strikes Thursday in the southern Sierra Nevada, with increased lightning forecast through Sunday.
Near Big Sur, 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.
Authorities closed a long stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway threatened by the blaze, shutting off access to several lodges, restaurants and art galleries that depend on tourist traffic. Motorists who had planned to drive south along the coast were forced to turn around.
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 in their rented Chevrolet Cobalt 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.