Crews make headway against volatile California wildfire

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Crews battling a fierce wildfire that has already destroyed two structures and blackened more than 7,000 acres in central California gained a measure of control over the flames on Thursday but said more than 50 homes were still in danger.

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Authorities shifted resources to battle the so-called Mineral Fire, which broke out on Tuesday afternoon near the town of Coalinga, after largely containing two other destructive blazes burning elsewhere in the state.

“It’s just always going to be a high threat because we don’t know about changing fire conditions,” said Mike Yuen, public information officer for the Mineral Fire. “We’re still entering the hottest part of the day but firefighters have actually made great progress out there over the last 24 hours.”

Yuen said crews had cut containment lines around 15 percent of the fire’s perimeter as of Thursday afternoon and hoped to extend those buffers throughout the day, depending on the weather.

He said 51 homes remained threatened by the fire, evacuation orders remained in place for residents in the path of the flames and the Red Cross had set up a shelter at a community college.

The Mineral Fire is one of nearly 30 major wildfires burning across the U.S. West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, five of them in California. The wildfire season has reached its traditional peak, intensified by prolonged drought and extreme summer heat across the state.

In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, the so-called Pilot Fire, which erupted on Sunday, was 70 percent contained after charring nearly 8,000 acres of dry chaparral, grass and timber.

Three school districts that closed their campuses because of dangerous conditions and heavy smoke had reopened them and some evacuation orders had been lifted.

Near Big Sur along California’s scenic coastline, the so-called Soberanes Fire was 55 percent contained on Thursday after burning through nearly 70,000 acres and destroying 57 homes, as well as 11 outbuildings.

A bulldozer operator died on July 26 when his tractor rolled over as he helped property owners battle the flames, the sixth wildfire fatality in California this year.

Authorities have traced origins of the Soberanes Fire to an illegal campfire left unattended in a state park about a mile from Highway 1 along the coast. No arrests have been made so far.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Steve Orlofsky