SoCal fires prompt emergency declaration

LOS ANGELES (KTVU & AP) --  Acting California Gov. Tom Torlakson has declared a state of emergency for a major wildfire that has burned 18 homes and killed one person in the Los Angeles area. 

The declaration issued Tuesday frees up state resources and temporarily sets aside regulations for the fire fight and the recovery. 

The fire in rugged wilderness between the northern edge of Los Angeles and the suburban city of Santa Clarita has burned 58 1/2 square miles (152 square kilometers) and at its peak forced about 20,000 people to evacuate, though most have now returned. 

Torlakson, the state's superintendent of public instruction, is acting as the state's chief executive because Gov. Jerry Brown and several other top officials who would normally replace him are all at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

California's signature parks along the Big Sur coastline that draw thousands of daily visitors were closed Tuesday as one of the state's two major wildfires threatened the scenic region at the height of the summer tourism season.

To the south, firefighters made progress containing a huge blaze in mountains outside Los Angeles, allowing authorities to let most of 20,000 people evacuated over the weekend to return home. In Wyoming, a large backcountry wildfire in the Shoshone National Forest put about 290 homes and guest ranches at risk.

The Big Sur fire threatened a long stretch of pristine, forested mountains hugging the coast and sent smoke billowing over the famed Pacific Coast Highway, which remained open with no flames visible to motorists but a risk that the blaze could reach the roadway.

"It is folly to predict where this fire will go," said California state parks spokesman Dennis Weber.

The Los Angeles-area fire has destroyed 18 homes since it started and authorities over the weekend discovered a burned body in a car identified Tuesday as a man who refused to be evacuated.

A woman living in the house Robert Bresnick was visiting left with firefighters but he went back inside the house. The body of Bresnick, 67, was found about 20 minutes later Saturday in the car after flames tore through the neighborhood, said Los Angeles County Coroner's Assistant Ed Winter.

The Big Sur closures were put into place for parks that draw 7,500 visitors daily from around the world for their dramatic vistas of ocean and mountains. Campgrounds were closed because of the dangers smoke could pose to visitors but could reopen soon if the blaze is held back by firefighters, Weber said. 

The park shutdowns came as a fire that started Friday just north of Big Sur grew Tuesday to 30 square miles (78 square kilometers) but was just 10 percent contained. Twenty homes have burned in the zone, residents of 300 more were ordered to evacuate and more than 2,000 firefighters were trying to douse the blaze. 

"At any point in time this fire can change directions, can spread very quickly and if that happens there could be embers that fly a mile ahead of the main fire," said Richard Cordova, a state fire captain.

The Wyoming fire in a remote region burned nearly 11 square miles (28 square kilometers) and forced the evacuations of 900 people but no homes had burned by Tuesday afternoon, authorities said. 

In neighboring Bridger-Teton National Forest, a fire grew to 26 square miles (67 square miles) and was partially contained. Two smaller fires were burning in the Bighorn National Forest.

In Southern California, the fire in rugged wilderness between the northern edge of Los Angeles and the suburban city of Santa Clarita grew to 58 1/2 square miles (152 square kilometers). 

But authorities said Tuesday they had managed to contain 25 percent of the area, meaning the flames there had been isolated and were not expected to spread. They warned, however, that the fire was still extremely dangerous and would take time to put out.

"We're not really out of the woods," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Justin Correll. "We're not ready to relax. There's still a lot of firefighting to do."

The 3,000 firefighters faced another day of temperatures in the 90s to low 100s as they fought the fire, aided by fleets aircraft dropping retardant and water and hundreds of fire engines.

Some neighborhoods in Santa Clarita, population about 200,000, remained off limits Tuesday because of the fire. But most evacuations ordered for about 10,000 homes with an estimated 20,000 residents were lifted.

Lane Leavitt, who trains stunt actors and specializes in setting people on fire for movies and television, was relieved when he returned home Monday evening to find his home and business fully intact. 

"It's a miracle everything was there," he said from his home across the street from a ranch used to make movies where the sets were incinerated. 

Leavitt and his son on Saturday used extinguishers to battle a 50-foot (15-meter) circle of flames in the backyard before firefighters arrived. 

Without that effort, he said, the fire probably would have consumed six tall pine trees that could have exploded and sent flaming embers onto his house, with wind carrying them to hundreds of others nearby.

Friends and clients from around the world called and texted Leavitt, worried he lost everything after he abandoned the house with fire burning on two sides of it.