USA — Piles of charred rubble smoldered near California’s scenic coastal highway Thursday as a ferocious wildfire descended on this storied town, destroying more cabins and vacation homes that were nestled against miles of burning forest land.
The stubborn blaze, which has burned more than 64,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest, was just one of hundreds raging around the state. Officials reported California’s first firefighter death this year a volunteer who collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County.
So much forest has burned near Big Sur that animals have been forced out of their habitat and onto the roads. Buzzards flew overhead to snatch up dead rodents and squirrels, and residents reported that they’d seen bear, deer and other big animals migrating toward the sea.
Smoke billows from the wildfires Wednesday in Big Sur. Photo: Associated Press.Meanwhile, crews near Highway 1 fought back flames from homes and historic landmarks, including the upscale Ventana Inn which was surrounded by crackling, burning brush Thursday afternoon. Several homes perched on a ridge about a quarter-mile from the cliffside inn fell victim to the fire the night before.
At least 20 homes have been destroyed in the area since the blaze broke out June 21, up from 17 homes counted Wednesday. The fire was only 5 percent contained by Thursday evening.
Many Big Sur residents followed mandatory evacuation orders issued this week, but some chose to defy the orders, staying behind to try to save their homes and businesses.
Kirk Gafill, general manager of Nepenthe restaurant, said he and five employees were up all night trying to protect the cliffside business 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.
Greg Ambrosio, who lives next to Nepenthe, signed a waiver Wednesday night to stay in his house. But his plans to stay were disrupted when he was awoken by a neighbor in the middle of the night who warned of the approaching inferno.
Then there’s a knock on the door, and we go outside and the fire had just expanded. It was Armageddon, he said. Just yellow smoke and ash mixed with fire. It was just raining down.
Ambrosio said he and his wife grabbed their cat and drove to a relative’s house nearby for the night.
A total of 367 wildfires were currently burning around the state, most ignited by lightning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service. That figure is down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires just a few days ago.
In all, the wildfires have scorched more than 790 square miles and destroyed at least 65 structures across northern and central California since June 20, according to the Cal Fire.
With firefighting resources stretched thin early in the fire season, counties have enlisted volunteer firefighters to help with smaller blazes.
On Thursday morning, volunteer firefighter Robert Roland, 63, died at the hospital after collapsing a day earlier in Mendocino County. It was the first reported death of a firefighter this season, and the governor ordered flags at the state capitol to fly at half-staff in Roland’s honor.
Roland was part of an all-volunteer squad of the Anderson Valley Fire Department battling a 550-acre lightning-sparked blaze.
Dan Priano, general manager of the expansive Post Ranch Inn resort at Big Sur, said he had been calling state and local officials, begging for more firefighting resources.
We’re staying to protect our livelihoods, he said. We haven’t seen any resources, no helicopters, nothing. Last night I watched three homes burn.
Crews made better progress at a separate 81,000-acre wildfire southeast of Big Sur. The blaze, also in Los Padres National Forest, was about 95 percent contained Thursday.
Meanwhile, a third wildfire in the southern extension of the Los Padres forest north of Santa Barbara forced residents to evacuate in the town of Goleta as strong winds pushed flames toward homes in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County to free up resources to fight that blaze, which has burned more than 2,400 acres and threatened about 200 buildings since breaking out Tuesday.
In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, crews continued working to get a handle on a 14,000-acre blaze, which was about 15 percent contained Thursday. Nearby residents remained under voluntary evacuation orders.