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Crews nearly double California wildfire containment ahead of expected dry heat, erratic winds

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SAN FRANCISCO — Crews nearly doubled containment of a Northern California wildfire threatening thousands of homes ahead of a weather system expected to bring dry heat and erratic winds that could undo their progress.

Firefighters on Tuesday were focusing on expanding containment lines ahead of a red flag warning in the afternoon, when gusts of up to 35 mph were expected, fire officials said. That coupled with low humidity could stoke the flames and send embers flying ahead of the blaze.

"This could set up some potential fire growth similar to what we experienced when it grew exponentially last week," said state fire spokesman Capt. Tom Piranio. "We are working very aggressively to maintain the contingency lines."

The nearly 7,400 firefighters assigned to the blaze made progress against it over the past several days with the help of cooler, wetter conditions. The fire was 35 percent contained Tuesday, up from 18 percent the day before.

PHOTO: FILE - In a Friday, Sept. 19, 2014 file photo, a truck passes one of several homes that burned in the recent King fire near Icehouse in El Dorado County, Calif. Officials said Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, that nearly three-dozen structures were destroyed in the massive Northern California wildfire that continues to spread more than a week after it started. (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randall Benton, File)
FILE - In a Friday, Sept. 19, 2014 file photo, a truck passes one of several homes that burned in the recent King fire near Icehouse in El Dorado County, Calif. Officials said Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, that nearly three-dozen structures were destroyed in the massive Northern California wildfire that continues to spread more than a week after it started. (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randall Benton, File)

The blaze was threatening about 21,000 structures, more than half of them homes. It has destroyed 10 houses and 22 minor buildings in the White Meadows area of Pollock Pines since it began Sept. 13.

About 2,700 people remain under evacuation orders, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant 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 was spreading smoke beyond California, with the weather service on Monday issuing a "dense smoke advisory" about 50 miles away in Reno, Nevada, and around Lake Tahoe, which is about 15 miles from the fire. Shifting winds later pushed the worst of the smoke back west.

Those winds sent the air quality index into the "very unhealthy" level for general populations in Auburn northeast of Sacramento — where some schools closed — as well as the Roseville and Rockville areas.

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

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Video:
PHOTO: 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)
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)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Smoke hovers in the Plumas National Forest as cattle feed in a field just outside Clio, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014. Crews have been trying to contain the King Fire, east of Sacramento, which is threatening thousands of homes and resulting in "dense smoke advisories" across the region. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
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