More firefighters added to battle California wildfire in anticipation of erratic winds, heat

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Much of the work on a wildfire happens far from the flames. On the King fire in the California's Gold Country, hand crews wield chainsaws and bulldozers cut fire lines to prevent flames from spreading. (Sept. 19)

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SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly 2,000 firefighters were added Tuesday to battle a massive Northern California wildfire threatening thousands of homes in anticipation of erratic winds and hotter temperatures that could undo their progress.

Almost 7,400 firefighters are on the scene as crews nearly doubled containment overnight of the King Fire east of Sacramento that has scorched 139 square miles. With containment now at 35 percent, crews focused on expanding contingency lines and putting out hot spots. But a red-flag warning with wind gusts of up to 35 mph, along with dry heat and low humidity, could stoke the flames and send embers flying ahead of the blaze.

"We're not sitting back and waiting. We have crews trying to get those containment lines strengthened," state fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean said. "Our awareness is heightened as we're continuing to work as hard and safely as we can to try to mitigate this fire."

The wildfire, which started on Sept. 13, continues to threaten about 21,000 structures, more than half homes. It has destroyed 10 homes and 22 outbuildings in the White Meadows area of Pollock Pines.

While firefighters made progress during the weekend with cooler and wetter conditions, there were fears Tuesday that winds could be similar to when the blaze doubled in size a week ago.

"We are just as concerned as were last week, but with the increased personnel we are optimistic that we can reduce any type of wind effect," state fire Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson said. "This is the highest priority fire in the nation. We're hopeful that we can combat it."

About 2,700 people remain under evacuation orders, fire officials said. The fire also continued to threaten a key University of California, Berkeley research station that is home to scores of experiments on trees, plants and other wildlife.

The blaze spread beyond California as the National Weather Service said a "dense smoke advisory" remained in effect Tuesday about 50 miles away in Reno, Nevada, and around Lake Tahoe, which is about 15 miles from the fire.

Those winds sent the air quality index into the "hazardous" level for general populations in Auburn northeast of Sacramento as well as the Roseville and Rockville areas.

A man charged with starting the fire, Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, pleaded not guilty to arson on Friday. He remains in the El Dorado County jail on $10 million bail.

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Associated Press Writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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