Wind shift expected to help suppress deadly California wildfire

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. (Reuters) - A deadly wildfire near California’s Big Sur coast raged mostly unchecked for a ninth day after gutting nearly 60 dwellings and forcing hundreds from homes and campgrounds, but a wind shift late on Saturday was expected to help firefighters quell the blaze.

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The so-called Soberanes Fire, which erupted on July 22 just south of the oceanside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, has roared through more than 35,000 acres (14,164 hectares) of drought-parched chaparral, grass and timber in and around the Los Padres National Forest.

The fire zone grew by several thousand acres on Saturday, even as firefighters hacked away more vegetation to keep containment lines extended around 15 percent of its expanding perimeter, officials said.

Steep, rugged terrain, combined with extremely hot, dry weather has hampered the efforts of some 5,300 firefighters battling to suppress the blaze.

But forecasters were calling for a reversal in wind direction late Saturday through Sunday that fire managers hope will drive flames back over areas already burned, thus stunting the fire’s growth and giving crews a chance to gain more ground.

“That could possibly slow the spread of the fire for the next few days, because with the change in the wind, it would be blowing the fire back into itself,” said Elizabeth Marks, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Flames have already destroyed 57 homes and 11 outbuildings, with at least five other structures damaged, according to the latest tally of property losses. Some 2,000 other structures were threatened, with an estimated 350 residents displaced by evacuations, officials said.

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More than 500 fire trucks along with 14 helicopters and six air tankers have been deployed to fight the blaze.

The fire threat has prompted authorities to close a string of popular California campgrounds and recreation areas along the northern end of the Big Sur coastline, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Point Lobos Natural Reserve.

Highway 1, the scenic route that winds along seaside cliffs overlooking the Pacific, remained open, though motorists were advised to allow for traffic delays caused by firefighting equipment entering and exiting the roadway.

The blaze took a deadly turn on Tuesday when a bulldozer operator hired by property owners to help battle the flames was killed as his tractor rolled over. It was the second California wildfire death in a week.

Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Dale Hudson and Kim Coghill