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Crews battling huge California wildfire bracing for hotter temperatures, erratic winds

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SAN FRANCISCO — Crews scrambled Monday to extend control lines around a massive Northern California wildfire threatening thousands of homes as they braced for strong, erratic winds similar to when the blaze doubled in size a week ago.

The King Fire east of Sacramento had burned through 137 square miles, an increase of about 9 square miles overnight despite crews making some progress in cooler and slightly wet conditions.

But expected warmer temperatures, low humidity and winds of up to 30 mph could increase fire activity, state fire spokesman Capt. Tom Piranio said.

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

Last week, the blaze grew to 111 square miles overnight when winds surged to more than 25 mph, the state forestry and fire protection department reported. More than 5,000 firefighters — from as far as Florida and Alaska — have worked around the clock to increase the fire containment from 10 to 18 percent by Monday.

However, a red flag warning has been issued for Tuesday as gusty winds could reach up to 35 mph by Wednesday, said Holly Osbourne, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.

PHOTO: A pair of firefighters sleep out in the open near dozens of tents used to house personnel coming off the fire lines from the King Fire, at the base camp in Placerville, Calif., Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Wayne Allen Huntsman pleaded not guilty to an arson charge Friday in El Dorado County Superior Court. He was being held on $10 million bail after authorities said he started the blaze. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
A pair of firefighters sleep out in the open near dozens of tents used to house personnel coming off the fire lines from the King Fire, at the base camp in Placerville, Calif., Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Wayne Allen Huntsman pleaded not guilty to an arson charge Friday in El Dorado County Superior Court. He was being held on $10 million bail after authorities said he started the blaze. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

"It's definitely going to pose a challenge to the control lines the firefighters have created," said Osbourne, adding that there's also a slight chance for rain Thursday.

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

About 100 evacuees were allowed to return home, but some 2,700 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 National Weather Service issuing a "dense smoke advisory" in Reno, Nevada and Lake Tahoe on Monday some 100 miles away. 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.

For the first time since a smoky haze drifted into western Nevada more than a week ago from a huge California wildfire nearly 100 miles away, the National Weather Service issued a "dense smoke advisory" for Reno and Lake Tahoe on Monday before shifting winds pushed the worst of it back west across the Sierra.

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: An out-of-control Northern California wildfire has nearly 2,800 people from their homes as it continues to grow, authorities said Thursday. Authorities said a man has been arrested on suspicion of arson for starting the fire on Saturday. (Sept. 18)
An out-of-control Northern California wildfire has nearly 2,800 people from their homes as it continues to grow, authorities said Thursday. Authorities said a man has been arrested on suspicion of arson for starting the fire on Saturday. (Sept. 18)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: A burned out bus is shown near one of several homes that burned in the recent King fire near Icehouse in El Dorado County on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randall Benton)
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