By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - Crews battling a deadly wildfire that has gutted dozens of homes near California's Big Sur coast looked forward to cooler weather to help them slow the flames on Monday as the blaze raged for an 11th day, burning most heavily in rugged, inaccessible terrain.
The combination of steep mountainous terrain and extremely hot, dry conditions has hampered efforts to quell the so-called Soberanes Fire, which erupted on July 22 just south of the picturesque oceanside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Carmel itself has remained largely out of harm's way, but the blaze has roared through more than 40,000 acres (16,190 hectares) of drought-parched chaparral, grass and timber in and around the Los Padres National Forest.
A force of nearly 5,300 firefighters has managed to slow the pace of the fire's spread during the past two days. But containment of the blaze - a measure of how much of its perimeter has been cleared by fire crews of unburned vegetation - stood at less than 20 percent on Monday.
As long as crews can keep the fire's growth somewhat in check, "we should get more containment as we go along," said Toni Davis, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
She added that slightly lower temperatures in the forecast should help that effort, even as some of the heaviest fire has crept into areas largely beyond the reach of ground crews.
Flames have already destroyed 57 homes and 11 outbuildings, with at least five other structures damaged, according to the latest tally. Another 2,000 structures were threatened, with an estimated 350 residents displaced by evacuations.
The fire threat, coming at the height of the region's summer travel season, has prompted the closure of several popular California campgrounds and recreation areas along the northern end of the Big Sur coastline, including Point Lobos Natural Reserve and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Officials on Sunday ordered evacuations for the famous Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Pfeiffer Big Sur.
The blaze took a deadly turn on Tuesday when a bulldozer operator hired by property owners to help battle the flames was killed when his tractor rolled over. It was the second California wildfire-related death in a week.
Another fire broke out on Saturday in grass and brush about 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Fresno, in central California, and has since charred about 1,800 acres (607 hectares), threatening 200 homes, according to Cal Fire.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)