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Hundreds of Blazes Mean California Firefighters Must Pick Their Battles

Cool, damp weather returned Tuesday to the area around a huge wildfire close to the tourist town of Big Sur, California, one of hundreds of blazes firefighters have struggled to contain.

The widespread flames, many ignited by lightning storms, forced firefighters to allocate their resources carefully. They are focused on communities in the path of flames, and allow other blazes to chew through unpopulated forest land.

"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. "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."

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This year is extraordinary for the number of active fires, Kirchner said. The weekend of June 21 had 1,200 fires — a number Forest Service officials said appeared to be an all-time record in California.

On Monday, the Forest Service put the figure at about 600, attributing the reduction to its tactic of attacking small fires first, and to significant assistance from other states and Canada.

Along the Pacific, the National Weather Service said patchy fog early Tuesday blanketed the area around the blaze that has blackened nearly 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) near the town of Big Sur.

The fire was just 3 percent contained as of late Monday, a day that began with similar conditions.

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

The weather service said Tuesday morning also brought relatively light wind to regions of Northern California where harsh terrain has hampered efforts to battle a blaze in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Temperatures were expected to return to the 80s in the afternoon.

Kirchner said wildfires have not been blamed for any significant injuries to civilians or firefighters even though some 570 square miles (1,470 square kilometers) of land have burned in California this season. There were a few minor injuries among firefighters working on the Shasta-Trinity fire.

"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."