SANTA BARBARA Authorities closed a highway and encouraged residents of about two dozen rural Ventura County homes to evacuate and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Sunday as a huge wildfire continued to swallow up wilderness.
The fire in the Los Padres National Forest grew an additional 4,600 acres since Saturday and officials say it could be on its way to becoming the largest blaze in modern California history.
Its growing, and it may become the granddaddy of them all before this is over with, Maeton Freel, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service told the Ventura County Star.
Schwarzenegger declared the state of emergency for Ventura County on Sunday afternoon. The move clears the way for state government assistance with costs related to the fire.
Highway 33 between Ventucopa and Wheeler Gorge was closed Sunday to all traffic, including residents, as crews worked to light backfires.
Most of the homes in the recommended evacuation zone are surrounded by alfalfa fields and are near the Deal and Rancho Nuevo Canyons in the Dick Smith Wilderness, where the fire has spread, said fire spokesman Ed Linquist.
The fire that began on July 4 had burned 188,035 acres of wilderness, or more than 293 square miles by Sunday.
It was 75 percent contained. Full containment has been predicted for Sept. 7. The fire has cost more than $81 million to fight since it was ignited by sparks from equipment being used to repair a water pipe.
The fire became active late Saturday about three miles west of Highway 33 and prompted the precautionary evacuation.
Winds were light, but the fire remained unpredictable as it charged through steep canyon wilderness and century-old chaparral.
Nearly 1,400 square miles of wilderness and forest lands in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Kern counties remained closed to visitors.