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Black smoke billows on top of the Henry Coe State Park on... (Joanne Ho-Young Lee / Mercury News)
Even as the blaze raging into a third day east of Morgan Hill threatens to become one of the largest wildfires in Santa Clara County history, most of the county remains largely untouched by it.

The towering smoke plume is visible for miles, but so remote is the area burning in Henry Coe State Park that only a handful of homes are threatened even though the fire could devour up to 30,000 acres - about the size of San Francisco - before it's finally squelched.

By Tuesday evening the blaze already had churned through 10,000 acres of rugged, forested terrain. Early this morning, fire officials said the fire had grown overnight, but did not know by how much.

"The fact that you have all this wild land, where there hasn't been a lot of homes, is why people are unscathed," Cal Fire spokesman Frank Kemper said. "Had it gone west, it would have been a whole different situation."

Officials have no estimate for when they'll have the blaze controlled, and only 20 percent had been contained by this morning.

To get a better handle on the blaze, fire officials said this morning they added air support. Kemper said increasing the number of helicopters from four to eight, and doubling the number of air tankers to eight, including the DC-10 that is flying in and out of Sacramento, should help slow down the fire's growth.

"We just can't get enough resoucrs to hold the lines," Kemper said. "It's important to realize that air tankers slow the growth, and the


ground crews" put out the flames.

From Highway 101, a black plume of smoke hung over the eastern hills in an otherwise cloudless sky. And, to the southeast, where the wind had dragged the smoke, a white haze was visible.

Only one outbuilding had been destroyed so far but 10 more were threatened, in addition to 25 homes. With the winds fanning southeast, the homes to the far west appear to be safe.

With so much burning and so little impact on the average person in the county,

Santa Clara County's vastness becomes even more apparent.

"Santa Clara County is mostly a remote area, essentially a large wilderness next to one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world," said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the California State Parks Department.

The fire is five to six miles from the nearest populated area, and there is not much access to the burning area in the park, the second largest in the state.

Dry vegetation at the park and winds made for a quickly spreading fire, Kemper said.

"Fire behavior is a big problem," he said. But the largest obstacle firefighters face is the steep and rugged terrain.

Trucks must traverse dirt roads and there isn't much room near the blaze to set up equipment, Cal Fire spokesman Kevin Colburn said. "There is one way in and one way out," he said.

Fire crews from around the state are trying to box in the fire north of Bear Mountain, south of Isabelle Valley, east of Hobbs Road and west of the county line.

They've set up a headquarters at Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy. A tent city has sprung up at the headquarters. Fire crews working in 24-hour shifts ate breakfast in rotations early Tuesday morning.

The center is complete with outdoor toilets, independent water supplies, generators and dozens of Cal Fire trucks. Workers unloaded pallets of Gatorade and bottled water from Costco trucks at the camp.

Tuesday, the fire drew 1,298 firefighters. Four firefighters suffered injuries; two were stung by bees on Monday; one firefighter had heat-related injuries and the type of injuries to the fourth were unknown. Crews from the cities of Seaside and Gilroy and the counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz, as well as the Spring Valley Volunteer Fire Department, responded to calls for help fighting the blaze.

Campers, hikers and hunters in the fire area have been accounted for, according to Colburn. With deer season under way, he said, many hunters had to be tracked down.

The fire is burning about 10 miles from the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, according to a fire spokesman. But the observatory is not in danger.

Keith Baker, a telescope technician, said the telescopes were open Monday night, though workers at the observatory kept a close watch on the blaze. "As long as the wind doesn't change directions, we're OK," he said.

Contact Leslie Griffy at or (408) 920-5945..