More Homes Burn As Wildfire Approaches Big Sur

BIG SUR, Calif. (AP) Independence Day is normally a booming time for tourism here, with out-of-towners settling into cliffside vacation homes or trekking out to campgrounds nestled among the redwoods.

But this year, the only out-of-towners in Big Sur were firefighters working around the clock to save this storied community from flames.

A ferocious wildfire burning through the Los Padres National Forest continued creeping closer to town Friday, after jumping a fire line and claiming more homes this week. Locals who feared for their homes and businesses also had to worry about lost revenue during peak season.

"I'm sure the season is just toast," said Kurt Mayer, who ignored mandatory evacuation orders to defend his Big Sur Deli from the approaching fire. "Usually the busiest time is July and August, so I'm sure it's just going to be zero."

The stubborn blaze, which has burned more than 64,000 acres, was just one of hundreds raging around the state. On Thursday, officials also reported California's first firefighter death this year - a volunteer who collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County.

At least 20 homes have been destroyed near Big Sur since the blaze broke out June 21. The fire was only 5 percent contained.

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 inn fell victim to the fire the night before.

Kirk Gafill, general manager of the nearby Nepenthe restaurant, said he and five employees were working feverishly 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. "Based on what we saw during Katrina and other disasters, we know we can only rely on ourselves and our neighbors."

A total of 367 wildfires were burning Thursday 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 was 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 around 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, of Anderson Valley died at the hospital after collapsing a day earlier while battling a 550-acre blaze 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.

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 3,000 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.