BIG SUR, Calif. An explosive wildfire ravaged the hillsides above this scenic coastal community Thursday, leaving the popular tourist region mostly deserted ahead of the holiday weekend.
Still, some people defied orders to evacuate the Big Sur area and stayed behind to try to save their homes and businesses from the raging 61,000-acre blaze that already has burned at least 16 homes.
Kirk Gafill, general manager of the popular cliffside Nepenthe Restaurant, said he and five employees were up all night trying to protect the 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."
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 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. The fire was only 3 percent contained and wasn't expected to be fully surrounded until the end of the month.
About 60 firefighters were hunkered down Thursday at the historic Ventana Inn, trying to save the 243-acre resort as flames blazed about 500 yards away from the inn's restaurant. The buildings had been sprayed with a foamy fire retardant.
"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 of hundred evacuees packed a public meeting Wednesday evening at the Carmel Valley Middle School, where officials braced them for a long fire season.
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."
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.
Associated Press writers Scott Lindlaw and Malia Wollan in San Francisco contributed to this report.