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Jul 27, 5:03 PM EDT

Bulldozer operator killed fighting California blaze


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BIG SUR, Calif. (AP) -- The operator of a bulldozer was killed when it rolled over during the fight against a wildfire near Big Sur that has destroyed 20 homes and spread across more than 36 square miles (93 sq. kilometers), California fire officials said Wednesday.

Another operator escaped injury when a second bulldozer rolled over and sustained minor damage, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The name and age of the operator who was killed was not immediately available.

Battalion Chief Robert Fish said the operator was working in steep and difficult-to-access terrain when the accident occurred. Fish did not have further details about the incident but said 60 bulldozers were being used in the fight against the fire.

The death occurred as firefighters worked around the clock against the blaze near a scenic stretch of the California coast, where smoke and the threat of flames forced the closure of state parks near Big Sur, a popular tourist area.

At least 2,000 structures were threatened.

Firefighters got a break early Wednesday from cooler temperatures and increased humidity.

Pacific Coast Highway remained open Wednesday, but its signature views were marred by a dark haze.

"We wanted to see more of the ocean," said Phoenix-area tourist Jim Newby, who drove along the highway with his family Tuesday. "We didn't see a whole lot of it unfortunately, and it's a beautiful, beautiful stretch."

The blaze could crest a ridge and make a run toward campgrounds, lodges and redwoods closer to the shore, officials said.

To the south, firefighters made progress containing a huge blaze in mountains outside Los Angeles, allowing authorities to let most of 20,000 people evacuated over the weekend return home.

The fire has destroyed 18 homes since it started and authorities found the burned body of 67-year-old Robert Bresnick on Saturday in a car and said he had refused to be evacuated.

The fire in rugged wilderness between the northern edge of Los Angeles and the suburban city of Santa Clarita grew slightly to nearly 60 square miles (154 square kilometers). It was 40 percent contained.

Firefighters expected temperatures to reach about 100 degrees (38 Celsius) on Wednesday with winds gusting to near 25 mph (40 kph).

"We're expecting to have a lot of smoldering today," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Justin Correll.

He said the 40 percent containment figure was good news but "that means there's still 60 percent of containment left to get. And that's a lot."

There was also high potential for "fire runs" up slopes still choked with unburned brush, he said.

The Big Sur closures were put into place for parks that draw 7,500 visitors a day from around the world for their dramatic vistas of ocean and mountains.

The fire started Friday north of Big Sur and was just 10 percent contained. Residents of 300 homes were ordered to evacuate and more than 2,000 firefighters were trying to douse the blaze.

Eight hikers were rescued near the fire lines Tuesday after spending days wandering smoky trails with little water or food. No serious injuries were reported.

Acting Gov. Tom Torlakson, substituting for Gov. Jerry Brown who is at the Democratic National Convention with other top state officials, declared a state of emergency for both fires on Tuesday night. The move frees up funding and relaxes regulations to help with the firefight and recovery.

Meanwhile in Wyoming, a large backcountry wildfire in the Shoshone National Forest put about 290 homes and guest ranches at risk. It burned nearly 11 square miles (28 square kilometers) and forced the evacuations of 900 people, but no homes had burned by Tuesday, authorities said.

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Bender reported from San Francisco.

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