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News: Big Sur blaze spares main resort area

(06-27) 14:57 PDT BIG SUR -- Firefighters made progress Friday on hundreds of wildfires that have consumed more than 300 square miles of California, while a 27,000-acre wildfire appeared to have skirted and spared the well-known resort areas of Big Sur.

Crews were reinforcing their efforts on the Basin Complex Fire that was lapping at the celebrated coastal resort. Several restaurants, lodges and galleries have been closed, along with a 15-mile stretch of spectacular, cliff-hugging Highway 1.

Forecasters said there is a "slight chance" that lightning strikes will return this weekend to Central and Northern California, although they would not be as severe as the freak storms that sparked thousands of lightning bolts and set off many of the blazes last weekend.

"It's not going to be anything like last weekend," said forecaster Diana Henderson of the National Weather Service. "There is an outlying chance of dry thunderstorms in the Sierra and Northern California, and it will be fairly dry and warm."

In the Bay Area, air quality is expected to improve somewhat today, although the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said it will remain unhealthy for some people in the East Bay and the Santa Clara Valley - mainly those with lung and heart problems. Air pollution in the North Bay has improved to "moderate" levels, the agency said.

To the south, firefighters were steering the Big Sur fire away from populated areas and parallel to the coast. The famed Henry Miller library and several other businesses and dwellings appear to have escaped the fire, which has destroyed 16 homes.

Highway 1 was closed at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, but the road from Monterey to the main resorts of Big Sur remained open. At the popular Nepenthe restaurant, which clings to the Big Sur hillside, general manager Kirk Gafill said he planned to reopen the dining room Friday night using an emergency generator.

The restaurant had been shut since Sunday. Fallen trees have damaged its water system, and thick smoke has obstructed the dramatic ocean view from the deck to perhaps 20 feet.

"It's been pretty nasty and a little surreal," Gafill said. "You feel like you've been smoking cigarettes all day."

At Big Sur Lodge, the largest hotel in the area, a desk clerk said that scores of people had canceled their reservations and that the hotel, which has remained open, was only about half full.

Farther south, falling ash and polluted air forced the Esalen Institute to cancel several of its psychology workshops and a Fourth of July music festival. Executive Director Harry Feinberg said there are no public sessions, therapeutic massages or skinny dipping in the celebrated cliffside hot springs, at least for now.

"The air has cleared a little, but we're expecting a lot of smoke and ash," he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told firefighters at the scene of the 3,300-acre Whiskeytown Fire near Redding that he is asking for federal disaster relief for Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Mendocino, Butte, Shasta and Trinity counties.

"It is clear we need every tool possible," he said. "It's very unusual to have this many fires at any particular time."

Schwarzenegger has also declared Mendocino and Shasta counties to be state disaster areas.

The governor praised the 15,600 firefighters battling the blazes with 1,270 engines and 100 helicopters and planes. He called them the "most experienced, most selfless and toughest firefighters in the world."

Thousands of those firefighters continued to battle the 10,600-acre Butte Lightning Complex Fire in Butte County (15 percent contained), the 27,000-acre Mendocino Lightning Complex Fire in Mendocino County (5 percent contained) and the Shasta-Trinity Lightning Complex Fire in Shasta County (5 percent contained).

Significant progress has been made on the 14,500-acre Walker Fire in Lake County, now 70 percent contained.

Elsewhere in Northern California, fire forced the complete or partial closure of several roads including highways 32, 70, 96 and 299. Areas of Butte, Shasta and Trinity counties are under evacuation orders.

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