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By Mike Fiala
CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif., July 28 (Reuters) - Firefighters scrambled on Thursday to suppress a deadly wildfire near California's famed Big Sur coast that has burned more than 40 homes, forced hundreds of residents to flee and closed popular parks at the height of the summer travel season.
The so-called Soberanes Fire erupted last Friday just south of the upscale oceanside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and has raged through nearly 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of drought-parched chaparral, tall grass and timber into the Los Padres National Forest.
Efforts by 4,200 firefighters to hack buffer lines through dense vegetation around the perimeter of the blaze have been complicated by worsening weather conditions - super-low humidity and gradually rising temperatures - officials said.
Containment stood at 15 percent by Thursday evening, even as the overall size of the fire zone continued to expand, leaving another 2,000 structures threatened and about 350 people displaced.
Flames have already destroyed 41 homes and 10 outbuildings, with at least two other dwellings damaged by fire, officials said. Firefighters however managed to save a number of large homes in the hills above the exclusive Carmel Highlands community.
The fire threat has also prompted authorities to close a string of heavily visited California campgrounds and recreation areas along the northern end of the Big Sur coastline, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Point Lobos Natural Reserve.
Heavy smoke and ash drifted over a wide area, eliciting occasional complaints from golfers at the world-renowned Pebble Beach links north of Carmel, but the oceanfront course remained in operation.
Highway 1, the scenic route that winds along the famed seaside cliffs overlooking the Pacific, likewise remained open, though motorists were advised to allow for traffic delays due to a heavy volume of fire-fighting equipment entering and existing the roadway.
The blaze took a deadly turn on Tuesday when a bulldozer operator hired by private property owners to help battle the flames was killed in the roll-over of his tractor, marking the second California wildfire fatality in a week.
He was identified on Thursday as 35-year-old Robert Oliver Reagan III, from the town of Friant, California.
About 300 miles (485 km) away, a 67-year-old man was found dead in a burned-out car last Saturday after refusing to heed evacuation orders in a separate fire that destroyed 18 homes in a mountainous area north of Los Angeles.
That blaze, dubbed the Sand Fire, was listed as 65-percent contained on Thursday after charring more than 38,000 acres (15,400 hectares).
Lingering smoke and soot spewed by the Erskine Fire have prompted air-quality regulators to warn residents in parts of the Los Angeles region to avoid outdoor activities for the time being. (Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)