By Mike Fiala

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. (Reuters) - Firefighters scrambled on Thursday to suppress a deadly wildfire near California's famed Big Sur coast that has burned three dozen dwellings, driven hundreds of residents from their homes and forced the closure of several popular parks at the height of summer travel season.

The so-called Soberanes Fire erupted last Friday just south of the upscale oceanside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and has raged through more than 27,000 acres (11,000 hectares) of drought-parched chaparral, tall grass and timber into the Los Padres National Forest.

Efforts by 3,500 firefighters to hack buffer lines through dense vegetation around the perimeter of the blaze have been complicated by worsening weather conditions - super-low humidity and gradually rising temperatures, officials said.


By Thursday afternoon, containment stood at 10 percent, even as the overall size of the fire zone continued to expand, leaving an estimated 2,000 structures threatened and about 350 evacuees displaced.

Flames have already destroyed 34 homes and 10 outbuildings, with at least two other dwellings damaged by fire, officials said.

The fire threat also has prompted authorities to close a string of heavily visited California campgrounds and recreation areas along the northern end of the Big Sur coastline, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Point Lobos Natural Reserve.

Highway 1, the scenic route that winds along the famed seaside cliffs overlooking the Pacific, remained open in both directions, though motorists were advised to allow for traffic delays due to a heavy volume of fire equipment entering and existing the roadway.

The blaze took a deadly turn on Tuesday when a bulldozer operator hired by private property owners to help battle the flames was killed in the roll-over of his tractor, marking the second California wildfire fatality in a week.

He was identified on Thursday as 35-year-old Robert Oliver Reagan III, from the town of Friant, California.

About 300 miles (483 km) away, a 67-year-old man was found dead in a burned-out car last Saturday after refusing to heed evacuation orders in a separate fire that destroyed 18 homes in a mountainous area north of Los Angeles.

That blaze, dubbed the Sand Fire, was listed as 65-percent contained on Thursday after charring more than 38,000 acres (15,400 hectares).

Lingering smoke and soot spewed by the Erskine Fire have prompted air-quality regulators to warn residents in parts of the Los Angeles region to avoid outdoor activities for the time being.

(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sandra Maler)

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