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A narrow single lane dirt road has been the main access to the Lick Fire,... ( MARIA J. AVILA )

Wind conditions have fanned out smoke from the Lick Fire today, temporarily grounding aircraft working to fight the blaze, according to a Cal Fire official.

It is unclear how long the hazy skies will keep air tankers and helicopters, key to fighting the wildfire in the rugged terrain of Henry W. Coe State Park, out of commission. A shift in wind direction could allow them to return to the skies at any time, said Cal Fire spokesman Frank Kemper.

Fire crews had their worst night yet battling the four-day old blaze at Henry W. Coe State Park.

Overnight, winds and extremely dry fuel pushed the fire across lines where officials had hoped to stop it. The fire jumped across a fireline to the northeast, officials said, but continued to move away from homes.

"It went where we didn't want it to go," Cal Fire spokesman Jim Pope said early this morning.

The blaze, which is 25 percent contained, has burned 18,905 acres. Cal Fire officials have said they expect the fire to burn 30,000 acres before it is completely contained.

Fire crews will focus their efforts today to the east and south portions of the blaze, as well as continuing their work to the north.

The approximately 850 firefighters heading out to Henry Coe State Park this morning found that cooler coastal winds had calmed the blaze, which had raged overnight, Pope said. He said that embers caught grass away from the blaze, causing the fire to jump its northeastern line.

If the


fire continues to burn eastward, it could travel further into dense wilderness and become even more difficult to fight.

There are a total of 1,709 firefighters working the blaze. Some were briefed this morning at 6 a.m. With dry conditions overnight, firefighters will have a drier, harder morning that normal, Cal Fire spokesman Frank Kemper said. Previously, moist air at night had put a damper on the blaze, but not so Wednesday night. Forecasters, however, are predicting a cool, wet seasonal wind moving in later from the southwest.

With several other wildfires burning throughout the state, including a larger blaze in Plumas County, Pope said that it took a few days to get all the personnel officials had requested to work the Lick fire.

"They have to prioritize where they send resources," Pope said. "We might not have gotten everything we had asked for. But right now, we are at the place we wanted to be with staffing."

Four firefighters have been injured since the blaze first started Monday, Pope said. None were injured Wednesday. However, a Cal Fire helicopter rescued citizens involved in a car crash near the blaze. The extent of their injuries is unknown.

Authorities said Wednesday that the Lick Fire was

started by careless behavior at a private hunting camp near a spot called Booze Lake, just outside the state park boundary. They said someone was burning something in a barrel and the flames got out of control.

Officials did not identify the person, but said he or she may be liable for the costs of fighting the blaze - $1.8 million on Wednesday and still climbing.

From their Gilroy staging area, many crews drove for almost three hours on Wednesday before reaching the steep ridgelines and narrow valleys where the 14,000-acre blaze continued to burn.

"It's hot. It's dusty. It's dry. It's dangerous," McCaslin said. His crew had worked for about 36 hours and slept for a little less than an hour.

In addition to the heat - today's forecast calls for temperatures in the low 90s - firefighters are facing extremely rough terrain. Coe is one of the biggest parks in the state system and is notorious among hikers for its steep hills and rugged trails.

Fire engines have to reverse and turn and inch forward and turn just to make it through narrow bends. The single road into the area is covered in about six inches of dust, which kicks up on the trucks in the back of a convoy, clogging air filters and engines.

Once inside the park, firefighters said there were few roads leading to the areas of the blaze itself. Firefighters were forced to set up equipment on the few trails that are large enough to allow them to do so.

"We are fighting a fire in extremely tight quarters," said Wayne Connor of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.

Because crews had trouble reaching the blaze on the ground, state fire officials summoned a number of aircraft. The state's only firefighting DC-10, eight tankers and eight helicopters are working the blaze.

On the ground, fire officials were looking for roads or ridgelines they could clear to create a fire break, and then setting backfires aimed at burning toward the main blaze.

The hope is that the backfires will clear more vegetation and deprive the main blaze of fuel before it hits the fire break, said Cal Fire spokesman Dick Rawson.

Connor said the blaze was considered an immediate threat to 10 hunting cabins, two park ranger homes and 13 other residences.

With the fire burning in a remote and mostly undeveloped area, officials had the luxury of concentrating on controlling the blaze, rather than diverting firefighters and equipment to protect large numbers of homes.

But Rawson said they would not let the fire burn unattended, because of the constant danger that winds could shift and move the blaze toward the valley.

That's why authorities spent more than two months and $118 million fighting the so-called Zaca fire as it burned through 240,000 acres of equally remote and mountainous territory in the Los Padres National Forest this summer. Though the fire destroyed only one building, officials said the threat to residential communities in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties was always on their minds.

"A fire can very quickly come out of those wilderness areas and into an urban interface within a matter of hours," said spokeswoman Kathy Good of the U.S. Forest Service, the lead agency on the Zaca fire.

Authorities on the Lick Fire said they were aided by a series of prescribed burns that were conducted inside Coe Park in recent decades.

Since the early 1980s, the state parks department had burned about 5,000 acres in a series of small, controlled fires designed to clear away dead growth and replicate the effects of natural fires, said George Gray, a senior ecologist for the parks department.

Most of those burns were in the western side of the park, and Gray said the current fire seemed to slow down whenever it approached those areas. He said the former owners of the park, which used to be a private ranch, conducted earlier controlled burns some 50 years ago in areas to the east, where the fire is now concentrated.

Some of those areas were scheduled for a new round of prescribed burns in the next few years, he said.

Mercury News staff writers Barry Witt and Sandra Gonzales contributed to this report. Contact Leslie Griffy at or (408) 920-5945.