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Firefighters gain ground on California coastal fire

Aerial view shows a burned out area along Pfeiffer Ridge in Big Sur, California, December 19, 2013. REUTERS/Michael Fiala
Aerial view shows a burned out area along Pfeiffer Ridge in Big Sur, California, December 19, 2013. REUTERS/Michael Fiala

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Firefighters have turned a corner against a wildfire that has destroyed 22 homes and forced the evacuation of dozens more along a picturesque stretch of central California coastline, officials said on Thursday.

Crews battling the so-called Pfeifer Fire were able to dig containment lines around 79 percent of the blaze, which had blackened more than 900 acres by Thursday morning, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lynn Olson said.

The fire erupted late Sunday night on Pfeiffer Ridge in Big Sur, a mountainous coastal region famed for its beaches, coastal redwoods and panoramic views of the ocean.

More than 1,000 firefighters were assigned to battle the blaze by Thursday. Their overnight efforts to control the flames were aided by a drop in temperatures and an increase in humidity compared to Wednesday morning, when the fire was only 20 percent contained, Olson said.

"The weather was a huge factor, probably one of the biggest," Olson said.

The number of firefighters assigned to battle the flames was more than tripled since Monday, and the increased manpower also helped speed up line digging, she added.

Still, the area's treacherous landscape, with high cliffs and quick-burning vegetation, has hampered firefighting efforts, Olson said.

Many trees in Big Sur also suffer from a rotting disease that makes them more likely fall. "They're dead and dry and ready to torch," she said.

The blaze is burning mostly on the ocean side of Highway 1, which runs roughly parallel to the Pacific coast in central California, U.S. The highway has remained open despite the fire, Olson said.

So far, the fire has forced 100 people to flee their homes. All of the dwellings known to have perished in the flames were located on Pfeiffer Ridge. Specialists are scheduled to set out on Thursday to assess the level of damage to residences and infrastructure.

The cause of fire, which started near Big Sur Lodge, about 25 miles south of Carmel, was under investigation, Olson said.

The area is home to a mix of multimillion-dollar houses and eclectic, fringe-living communities.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)

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