Wildfires Force Evacuations in California

     SAN LUIS OBISPO (CN) – Hundreds of people were evacuated Tuesday as wildfire burned north of San Luis Obispo, forcing the small town of Santa Margarita to cancel its first day of school.
     Cal Fire officials said sparks from a single tow chain could have set off three fires.
     The largest of them, just north of downtown San Luis Obispo, has spread to 2,500 acres and is only 10 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
     The Cuesta Fire – named after the steep 1,600-foot Cuesta Grade – began Sunday. Santa Margarita Elementary School called off its first day of classes, set for Wednesday, as 339 residents of Santa Margarita were told to evacuate. The town of about 1,300 is between San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. A shelter was set up in Atascadero, where smoke and ashes made life difficult for people with respiratory or heart problems.
     Reduced water supplies from the drought made firefighting even more difficult than usual in the heat wave. A Cal Fire spokesman said that a single tow chain or overheated catalytic converter could have started the Cuesta Fire, a 12-acre fire in Cholame and a fire in Santa Barbara County near Buellton.
     People who start a wildfire through negligence can be charged with the costs of fighting the fire. More than 700 firefighters, 73 fire engines, four helicopters and nine bulldozers were fighting the Cuesta Fire alone – a relatively small one.
     Flames from the San Luis Obispo County fires approached Highway 101 this week as helicopters and planes dropping retardant circled in the smoky air.
     At least 19 wildfires were burning in California on Tuesday and 200 members of the military were called out to help fight fires in 10 Western states. More than 1 million acres have burned this summer in the West, and barring an unlooked-for end to the drought, the fire season will surely last through October or longer.
     One of the largest blazes, the Route Complex, has burned 29,000 acres in Trinity County, east southeast of Eureka. The fire, in and around Mad River, Dinsmore and Hyampom, was started by lightning. At least five people have been injured there.
     In Montebello, a suspected arson caused a wildfire that leaped across roads.
     At least 4,382 fires have burned more than 118,000 acres in California this year, according to CalFire, up from 3,047 fires and 88,000 acres in the same period last year. The 5-year average for the time period, from Jan. 1 through Aug. 8, is 2,875 fires and 53,277 acres burned.

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