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California wildfires sapping crews

A firefighter walks out of a brush fire burning out of control in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Goleta, Calif., on Saturday. Associated Press
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A firefighter walks out of a brush fire burning out of control in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Goleta, Calif., on Saturday. Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

LOS ANGELES – A wildfire threatening thousands of homes in Southern California spread slowly through scenic canyonlands Saturday, straining resources as crews struggled to contain hundreds of other blazes around the state.

“The firefighters are stretched thin, they are exhausted,” and some have gone days without sleep, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited a command post in Santa Barbara County.

A slew of wildfires, most ignited by lightning two weeks ago, has burned more than 800 square miles of land throughout California. The blazes have destroyed at least 69 homes and other buildings and contributed to the death of a firefighter who suffered a heart attack while digging fire lines.

About 1,400 fires have been contained, but more than 330 still burned out of control Saturday.

Schwarzenegger said the state’s top priority was in the coastal region of Santa Barbara County, where nearly 2,700 homes were threatened by a four-day-old fire in the Los Padres National Forest that has consumed about 13 square miles.

Cooler, moist air Saturday morning kept the fire sluggish and helped firefighters trying to surround it, said Pat Wheatley, county spokeswoman. The fire was 24 percent contained, she said.

“It’s just spreading in each direction, but they are holding the line beautifully,” she said.

Crews hoped to make more progress before the return of late afternoon “sundowner” winds that Friday evening sent flames racing up to homes.

More than 2,600 homes were under mandatory evacuation Saturday, and residents in another 1,400 were warned to be ready to flee if the flames gathered speed.

Wheatley said the mandatory evacuation orders were partially lifted later Saturday, allowing some residents of Goleta to return, but she did not know how many homes were affected.

The fire, which was burning in 15-foot-high, half-century-old chaparral, had the potential to roll through a hilly area of ranches, housing tracts and orchards between the town of Goleta and Santa Barbara.

“The advice is that you get prepared, that you get your belongings together and you stay very watchful,” Wheatley said.

Nearly 1,200 firefighters struggled to surround the blaze while a DC-10 air tanker and other aircraft dumped water and fire retardant along ridges and in steep canyons.

Meanwhile, cooler weather helped crews attacking a two-week-old blaze that has destroyed 22 homes in Big Sur, at the northern end of the Los Padres forest, but the fire continued to grow slowly on all flanks Saturday night.

The fire, which had blackened more than 110 square miles, was only 5 percent contained with full containment not expected until the end of the month, but morning fog that moved in from the sea helped prevent it from advancing on Big Sur’s famed restaurants and hotels.

A homeowner near Big Sur was arrested Friday after officials said he refused orders to stop setting his own backfires.

Meanwhile, residents of Crown King, Ariz., who had left their homes for nearly a week because of a wildfire were allowed to return Saturday night. A thunderstorm that drenched the area Friday evening helped fire crews working to get a line around the blaze, which consumed more than 15 square miles of forest.