By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Crews battling a deadly wildfire in rugged drought-stricken terrain north of Los Angeles faced a return of brutal heat on Tuesday after a day-long respite of cooler weather and diminished winds that helped them gain some ground against the blaze.
Stoked by triple-digit temperatures and erratic winds, the Sand Fire erupted near a cluster of communities about 40 miles north of Los Angeles and spread quickly over the weekend, destroying 18 homes and the landmark Sable Ranch, popular for TV and movie productions. One man perished on Saturday after he refused to heed firefighters' instructions to leave immediately.
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By Tuesday morning, some 3,000 firefighters hacking through dense brush and chaparral had extended containment lines around 25 percent of the so-called Sand Fire, which has charred 59 square miles (153 sq km) since Friday, officials said.
Containment had stood at just 10 percent on Monday. The overall footprint of the conflagration was little changed, with most of the additional acreage that burned since Monday coming from newly ignited pockets of vegetation within the fire zone.
About 300 miles to the north, a smaller fire raging since Friday between Big Sur and the scenic coastal town of Carmel-by-the-Sea continued to threaten some 1,650 properties after destroying 20 homes on Sunday. It remained 10 percent contained on Tuesday, authorities said.
The high temperatures abated on Monday, accompanied by reduced winds and higher humidity, giving crews the chance to make some progress through the day and overnight into Tuesday, fire officials said.
As the fire edged away from populated areas and crept farther into the adjoining Angeles National Forest, evacuation orders were lifted on Monday night for most of the estimated 20,000 displaced residents.
Firefighters faced drier conditions and temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) again on Tuesday, but winds remained calmer, according to U.S. Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy.
"It is hot and it is dry, but luckily our firefighters have gotten some kind of handle on it," Judy told Reuters, adding that "one good wind gust" could spark a dangerous flare-up.
The single fire fatality was identified on Tuesday as Robert Bresnick, 67, whose body was found Saturday inside a burned-out car parked in a driveway, said Ed Winter, assistant chief Los Angeles County coroner.
Winter said a female friend Bresnick was visiting was forcibly removed by firefighters as flames closed in on them, but Bresnick insisted on staying put. He was last seen alive walking toward the car, apparently having changed his mind after it was too late.
North of Big Sur at the edge of the Los Padres National Forest, some 2,300 firefighters were battling a blaze dubbed the Soberanes Fire, which has scorched nearly 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) since Friday, a state fire agency spokeswoman said.
The causes of both fires were under investigation, but they are among some 3,750 blazes large and small that have erupted across California since January. The higher-than-normal total has collectively scorched more than 200,000 acres, state fire officials said.
The biggest so far was last month's Erskine Fire, which consumed 48,000 acres northeast of Bakersfield, killing two people and destroying about 250 structures.
By comparison, the 2003 Cedar Fire ranks as the biggest on record in the state, burning more than 273,000 acres and killing 15 people.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Tom Brown and G Crosse)