July 8, 2008

Residents Refuse to Leave Big Sur

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.

- The Associated Press

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