Firefighters attack massive, weeks-old California wildfire

Fire trucks, bulldozers and water tankers guarded homes within sight of a massive wildfire Tuesday as officials urged rural residents of Southern California mountain communities to evacuate.

Thick smoke turned the sky gray and purplish as flames rolled through pines and juniper trees on slopes of Los Padres National Forest, where more than 3,500 firefighters have battled the blaze since it started on Sept. 4.

No homes had been lost to the fire, one of the largest and longest-burning wildfires in state history, burning some 70 miles (113 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. Overall, containment was just 43 percent.

Six unoccupied buildings were destroyed, including a modular home, a cabin, barns and camp trailers, said fire spokesman Dan Bastion.

Wind-whipped flames jumped a road during the day, said U.S. Forest Service fire spokesman Larry Comerford.

"It sounded like a jet engine," Forest Service firefighter Greg Valencia said of a towering wall of flame he saw blow past a home, leaving it unscathed.

Water- and retardant-dropping helicopters and aircraft attacked the flames from the sky. On the ground, crews staged equipment at the widely spaced homes for structure protection. At almost every house there was at least one engine and a few firefighters clearing brush, hosing down roofs and decks. A bulldozer plowed a firebreak around one home.

The new fire activity was a surprise setback for firefighters. The blaze that had been moving relatively slowly with the dying of weekend Santa Ana winds that had the potential to greatly spread flames but did not.

The blaze, which has burned more than 144,880 acres (57,952 hectares) of wilderness, was ignited by someone burning debris. Firefighting costs have topped $41 million (Ђ32.3 million).

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for Ventura County. The move clears the way for government assistance with costs related to the fire.