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Damp Weather Helps California Firefight as Schwarzenegger Vows National Guard Help

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Saturday promised the help of hundreds of National Guard troops to help crews battling wildfires threatening homes around the state.

The governor visited the Goleta command post of a blaze that has burned 13 square miles of brush in Santa Barbara County, prompting an evacuation order for thousands of homes. The fire was 24 percent contained as of Saturday afternoon.

Schwarzenegger said many firefighters have worked days without sleep and need a chance to rest. He's called up 400 National Guard troops for fire training.

Cool, damp weather early Saturday helped crews gain ground on the huge wildfire that wiped out this coastal retreat's holiday tourist trade, allowing some personnel and gear to be shifted to a growing blaze farther south.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters were trying to stem the advance of the two-week-old blaze in Big Sur that has blackened more than 107 square miles in the northern end of the Los Padres National Forest and destroyed 20 homes.

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At the southern end of the national forest, officials extended a mandatory evacuation order to cover 5,000 homes in and around the city of Goleta, while residents of 1,400 other homes were warned to be ready to leave on short notice, said Santa Barbara County spokesman Jim McClure.

The amount of land blackened by the Santa Barbara County fire grew to 13 square miles, up from more than 10 square miles Friday, but firefighting officials said it was nearly one-quarter contained, up from 14 percent late Friday.

Authorities planned an aggressive air attack on the fire Saturday, including drops from a huge DC-10 air tanker.

In his weekly radio address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited the fires in promoting his budget plan to charge the average homeowner $12 a year to pay for emergency services.

"We no longer have a fire season that starts in the summer and runs through the fall. Because of the extreme dry conditions, we are now seeing fires as early as February that last all year," said Schwarzenegger, who planned to visit a command center near Goleta on Saturday.

Crews battling the Big Sur fire got an assist early Saturday from marine fog and lower temperatures. They had set backfires late into Friday night in an effort to protect properties along the scenic Highway 1 corridor, which firefighters were using as a fire break.

"We're gaining ground, but we're nowhere near being done," said Gregg DeNitto, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "There's still a lot of potential out there. The fire has been less active the last couple of days. We've had favorable weather, they are taking every opportunity to get some line on it."

However, the weather is expected to worsen over the next couple of days, he said, with wind and temperatures rising and humidity dropping.

"The fire still has the potential for movement and the potential to get out of our containment lines," DeNitto said.

Even though DeNitto said teams were gaining ground, the Big Sur fire remained only 5 percent contained Saturday.

Kurt Mayer watched as crews set the forest and brush on fire across the street from his Big Sur Deli late Friday. Dozens of firefighters stood guard along Highway 1 with their backs to the fire, watching the homes and businesses for any sign that the fire had jumped the highway.

"You could call it uneventful even though it was spectacular," Mayer said. "It was very well controlled."

Similar controlled burns appear to have protected several well-known businesses at the top of Big Sur Valley, including Ventana Inn and Nepenthe, Mayer said.

The two Los Padres blazes were among 334 active wildfires in California on Saturday, down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires a few days earlier, but they were commanding the greatest share of equipment and personnel because of their locations near populated areas, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Arizona, officials said residents evacuated from the historic mining community of Crown King because of a wildfire would be allowed to return home Saturday evening. The blaze was 50 percent contained Saturday, after charring nearly 16 square miles of brush and forest.

About 120 residents of the mountain town, about 20 miles southeast of Prescott, Ariz., were evacuated last Sunday. Firefighters managed to save most of Crown King's scattered 400 homes and vacation cabins, but four homes and seven other buildings were destroyed.

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