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 blaze, which has burned 100 square miles of the Los Padres National Forest and destroyed at least 17 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 embers, the size of dinner plates, 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."
The raging blaze near Big Sur was one of more than 1,700 wildfires, mostly ignited by lightning, that have scorched nearly 800 square miles and destroyed more than 60 structures across northern and central California since June 20, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
In an extension of the Los Padres forest north of Santa Barbara, about 45 residents fled a fast-growing fire as strong winds pushed flames toward about 200 canyon homes in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
The fire is the first in the area since 1955 and is feeding on shrubs that stand almost 20 feet high. The blaze has burned about 4 square miles since breaking out on Tuesday and is about 5 percent contained.
Two other canyons remained under mandatory evacuation orders.
Shifting winds made it tough on firefighters. An onshore breeze Thursday morning pushed the fire back up ridges toward firelines at the top, said county Fire Department Capt. Eli Iskow. But winds were expected to kick up late in the afternoons through the weekend, he said.
A volunteer firefighter died Thursday after collapsing while battling a blaze in Mendocino County, north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Robert Roland probably died of a heart problem, said Anderson Valley Fire Department volunteer Dawn Ballantine.
The air near Big Sur was thick with smoke and ash, and flames licked the forested hills above the coastal highway. The blaze was only about 3 percent contained and wasn't expected to be fully surrounded until the end of the month.
The National Weather Service on Thursday warned of high fire danger in the Big Sur area because of dry and windy conditions. A statewide drought has created tinder-like trees and brush, feeding the flames in California's forests.
Authorities have ordered evacuations for homes and businesses along a 25-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, but many property owners chose to remain in the fire zone at their own risk.
Dan Priano, general manager of the expansive Post Ranch Inn resort, stayed on the 100-acre property with eight employees trying to protect dozens of structures. He said he has 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."
Despite the evacuation orders, fire and law enforcement officials cannot force people to leave their property, said Tina Rose, a Cal Fire spokeswoman.
"This is America. We can't go in and put handcuffs on people and drag them out," Rose said. "People have rights and can protect their property."
If someone refuses to leave, the person must sign a waiver that asks for next of kin and the name of a dentist, so the individual can be identified by dental records in case of death, she said.
About 60 firefighters were hunkered down Thursday at the historic Ventana Inn, trying to save the large resort as flames blazed about 500 yards 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."
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."
More than 30 miles of the Pacific Coast Highway have been closed. About 1,200 homes are threatened on a long strip of coast in the Los Padres forest, said John Heil, a Forest Service spokesman.
A separate blaze that started about a month ago and covered more than 120 square miles was nearly fully contained Thursday in the Los Padres forest southeast of Big Sur.
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 told 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.