Firefighters mass to protect Big Sur

Firefighters mass toprotect Big Sur

27 June 2008

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USA — A growing wildfire near Pfeiffer Burns State Park threatens thehistoric and picturesque getaway. Northern California braces for more lightningstrikes that have already sparked nearly 1,100 blazes.

Firefighters bolstered their defenses today against an expanding wildfirethat threatened homes on the fabled 70-mile coastal strip of Big Sur while theybraced at the same time for fresh lightning strikes that could ignite new firesacross Northern California.

The blazes prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this morning to request thatPresident Bush declare a state of emergency in the region. The counties coveredby his request are Butte, Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shastaand Trinity.

Nearly 1,100 fires were burning in the region from San Jose to the Oregonborder, said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. Those arein addition to the two gigantic blazes that have charred some 134 square milesin the Los Padres National Forest.

By midday, the fire licking the edges of Big Sur’s legendary cliffs and funkygetaways had receded from some of the rugged coast’s landmarks. At about noon,traffic on Highway 1 from the north was allowed to proceed about two milesfarther down the narrow winding road, past the Post Ranch Inn resort.

“A lot of businesses are reopening,” said Dan Priano, the PostRanch Inn’s general manager, who opened the resort’s doors today after closingthem to guests Sunday evening. “It’s a nice situation to be in.”

“It looks like a lot of the fire is heading for the backcountry,”he said.

To the south, Esalen, ground zero for the “human potential”movement of the 1970s and site of numerous self-improvement seminars, wasuntouched. However, smoky conditions forced it to cancel arts workshops,personal retreats and night bathing for several days.

Nepenthe, a well-known cliff-side restaurant, was planning to reopen thisevening, said Kirk Gafill, Nepenthe’s general manager and grandson of the couplewho started it in 1949.

“We’ve been blessed with very little wind activity for the last week,”said Gafill, fresh from a tour of redwoods burning across Highway 1 just 1,000feet to the east. “If that were to turn around, all bets are off.”

Sixteen homes have been burned, according to fire officials.

Fires in the area have been burning for seven days, spiking stress levels inan area renowned for its tranquillity.

“We’ve had other threatening fires over the years,” he said, “butthe whole world showed up to deal with it, and for 24 hours you’d be scramblingto secure your property and pack your belongings. When it’s over, you felt itwas over. This is psychologically unique.”

The fire in the Big Sur area has consumed more than 26,000 acres and was just3% contained as of this morning.

“It’s due east of Post Ranch and due east of downtown Big Sur,”said Terry Reedy, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. “Pfeiffer-BurnsState Park is at the south end.”

Firefighters were concerned that flames from Big Sur could join those of theIndian fire to the south, creating an even more massive blaze, Reedy said.

“The fuels are very heavy and it’s kind of shockingly dry,” he said.”But that’s true for the whole state.”

Thousands of residents remained evacuated from their homes as the blazesraged for a seventh day since a freak barrage of thunderstorms rolled across theregion last weekend.

Areas of Butte, Shasta and Trinity counties still were under evacuationorders, and authorities were suggesting that residents leave their homes infire-threatened spots in Lassen, Modoc, Mendocino, Trinity and Shasta counties.

Half a dozen state highways in those counties were closed, hindering travelas the summer vacation season kicks in. Authorities said property damage had notbeen widespread. In the last week, 18 residences, one commercial building and 19other structures have been lost, according to the California Department ofForestry and Fire Protection.

A blanket of smoke continued to plague the Central Valley, with air qualityreadings in Sacramento topping out just short of the “very unhealthful”range.

In some spots, the smoke was so thick that airline flights were delayed.Residents with breathing problems were being urged to stay indoors.

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