Big Sur evacuated as massive wildfire spreads

Big Sur evacuated as massive wildfire spreads

3 July 2008

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An explosive wildfire ravaged the hillsides above this scenic coastal community Thursday, leaving the popular tourist region mostly deserted ahead of the holiday weekend.

But some residents and business owners defied orders to evacuate the Big Sur area and stayed behind to try to save their homes and businesses from the raging 56,000-acre blaze.

Kirk Gafill, general Manager of the popular Nepenthe Restaurant, said he and five employees were up all night trying to protect the cliff-side restaurant his grandparents built in 1949. Wearing dust masks, the crew scrambled to stamp out the dinner plate-sized embers dropping from the sky, he said.

“We know fire officials don’t have the manpower to secure our properties,” Gafill said. “There are a lot of people in this community not following evacuation orders. Based on what we saw during Katrina and other disasters, we know we can only rely on ourselves and our neighbors.”

Kurt Mayer, 53, stayed at his Big Sur Deli through the night clearing brush and preparing to cover his business with fire-retardant gel, which he says works best when applied within hours before flames reach a structure.

Mayer watched the flames glowing all night, saying “it was a spectacular scene.”

Authorities issued new mandatory evacuations Wednesday for an additional 16-mile stretch along Highway 1 after the massive blaze jumped a fire line.

A total of 31 miles of the Pacific Coast Highway have been closed, and about 1,200 homes are threatened on a long strip of coast in the Los Padres National Forest, said John Heil, a Forest Service spokesman.

About 60 firefighters were hunkered down Thursday at the historic Ventana Inn, trying to save the 243-acre compound. The rustic inn had been sprayed with foamy fire retardant and was covered in ash as flames blazed about 500 yards away from the inn’s restaurant.

“This is a big, big deal,” said Scott Myhre, a battalion chief with the Salinas Fire Dept. “This resort is very well known.”

The raging blaze near Big Sur was one of more than 1,700 wildfires, mostly ignited by lightning, that have scorched more then 770 square miles and destroyed 64 structures across northern and central California since June 20, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Mild temperatures and light winds did little to calm the inferno near Big Sur, which officials described as fuel-driven rather than wind-driven. A statewide drought this year has created tinder-like trees and brush, feeding the flames in California’s forests.

“The fire is just a big raging animal right now,” said Darby Marshall, spokesman for the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services.

A couple hundred evacuees packed a public meeting Wednesday evening at the Carmel Valley Middle School, where officials braced them for a long fire season. The fire, which already has burned 16 homes and nearly 56,000 acres, was only 3 percent contained and wasn’t expected to be fully surrounded until the end of the month.

John Friel, 62, who had been living with his kitten in his car for the past three days after being forced to leave behind his mobile home, was disappointed by the news.

“I’ve had six strokes this year and a heart attack. I’m feeling pretty scattered,” said the retired film production worker who moved to Big Sur three years ago. “It was like putting a Rubik’s Cube back together before, so this ain’t helping. It just notches up the stress level.”

Janna Fournier, one of the 850 Big Sur residents affected by the evacuation order, went to retrieve artwork and rescue her pet tarantula before roads closed late Wednesday afternoon.

“I feel sad for the wilderness and the people who lost their homes,” Fournier said. “We chose to live in a wilderness among all this beauty, so I know there’s that chance you always take.”

Helicopters hauling large containers of water droned loudly overhead as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, visited the area.

“If people evacuate like they’re told to, we shouldn’t lose any lives,” Paulison said in an interview. “My only concern is that people don’t take it seriously enough.”

Meanwhile, a fast-growing fire in the southern extension of the Los Padres forest north of Santa Barbara also forced about 45 residents to evacuate as strong winds pushed flames toward homes in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. About 200 homes are threatened, but no injuries have been reported and no structures have burned.

The blaze had burned 2,000 acres of rough terrain, officials said. As night fell Wednesday, about 150,000 Southern California Edison customers in Goleta and Santa Barbara lost power when thick smoke forced the shutdown of power transmission lines.

Farther south in Malibu, a house fire destroyed a vacant beachfront home, damaged two others and shut down traffic in both directions on Pacific Coast Highway for hours Thursday morning. Lanes were expected to reopen sometime after 7 a.m.

In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, crews struggled to contain a 14,000-acre blaze. Powerful gusts and choking smoke traveling up the steep canyons hampered their progress, and residents of neighboring towns were ordered to evacuate.

Back in Big Sur, construction worker Billy Rose helped clear brush around local businesses to protect the community he grew up in.

“Big Sur people are used to stress – rock slides, water spouts, 40-foot waves, you get numb to it,” he says, looking weary as he sharpened his chain saw. “You can’t tame Big Sur – this place is untamable.”

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