Dr. Avnish Jolly, 4th July, 2008:Piles of charred rubble smoldered near California’s scenic coastal highway yesterday as a ferocious wildfire descended on the storied tourist town of Big Sur, destroying vacation homes and sending forest creatures running toward the sea for cover.
The stubborn blaze, which has burned more than 100 square miles in the Los Padres National Forest, was just one of hundreds raging around the state and officials California’s first firefighter death this year and Robert Roland, 63, volunteer firefighter, died in a Mendocino County hospital after collapsing a day earlier while battling lightning-sparked blazes in the area, north of the San Francisco Bay region. It was the first reported death of a firefighter this season, and the governor ordered flags at the Capitol to fly at half-staff.
Forest has burned so badly near Big Sur that animals have been forced out of their habitat and onto the roads. Buzzards flew overhead to snatch up dead rodents and squirrels, and residents reported seeing bear, deer and other big animals migrating toward the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, rescue crews near the Pacific Coast Highway fought back flames from homes and historic landmarks, including the upscale Ventana Inn, which was surrounded by crackling, burning brush.
Around 20 homes have been destroyed in the Big Sur since the blaze broke out June 21, up from 17 homes counted Wednesday. The fire was only 5 percent contained by Thursday evening and residents followed mandatory evacuation orders issued this week, but some chose to defy the orders, staying behind to try to save their homes and businesses.
Around 367 wildfires are burning in the state, most ignited by lightning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, and the U.S. Forest Service. That figure is down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires just a few days ago and in all, the wildfires have scorched more than 790 square miles and destroyed at least 65 structures across northern and central California since June 20, according to Cal Fire.
With firefighting resources stretched thin early in the fire season, counties have been recruiting volunteer firefighters to help with smaller blazes. Crews made progress at a separate wildfire burning nearly 130 square miles southeast of Big Sur. The blaze, also in Los Padres National Forest, was about 95 percent contained Thursday.
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.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger yesterday declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County to free up resources to fight that blaze, which has burned nearly 4 square miles and threatened about 200 buildings. In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, crews struggled to contain a blaze burning nearly 22 square miles. 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.