Big Sur evacuates as wildfire spreads

July 3, 2008 9:25:34 AM PDT
Flames ominously licked the ridge overlooking this scenic coastal community, which appeared nearly abandoned Thursday after an explosive wildfire caused authorities to order more residents out of the area.New mandatory evacuation notices were issued Wednesday for an additional 16-mile stretch along Highway 1 after the blaze jumped a fire line in the Los Padres National Forest. A total of 31 miles of the coastal highway, lined with homes and businesses, is now closed.

Several hundred evacuees attended a meeting Wednesday evening where officials braced them for a long fire season. The blaze, which already has burned 16 homes and nearly 88 square miles, 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 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 retiree, 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."

The blaze near Big Sur was one of more than 1,700 wildfires - most ignited by lightning - that have scorched more than 770 square miles and destroyed 64 structures across northern and central California since June 20, according to state officials.

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 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.

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 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."

Some residents did choose to ignore the evacuation order, including Scott Parker, who stopped by the local general store as firefighters trimmed trees above the store to ward off flames snaking along the hillside a quarter-mile away.

"My wife and I are going to stay at least until we are in imminent danger. If there's a possibility of saving the house, then we're going to do it," said Parker, a landscaper who moved to Big Sur 30 years ago. "We've had a couple close ones, but this is the closest."

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

The blaze had burned 2,000 acres, or about three square miles, of rough terrain, officials said. As night fell Wednesday, about 150,000 Southern California Edison customers in Goleta and Santa Barbara temporarily lost power when thick smoke forced the shutdown of power transmission lines. Power was restored to all customers by midnight.

In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, firefighters struggled to contain a 22-square-mile blaze. Powerful gusts and choking smoke traveling up the steep canyons hampered their progress, and residents of neighboring towns were ordered to evacuate.

In Arizona, a wildfire that destroyed three homes in the historic mining community of Crown King earlier in the week was still just 10 percent contained Thursday morning. Evacuations continued in the town, 50 miles north of Phoenix, and nearby Horsethief Basin.